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Boosting Auto Software Productivity and Quality

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Information and communications technology (ICT) has long been recognized as a key enabler for boosting competitiveness, productivity and, when the application demands it, safety, across a wide range of major industries.

The automotive sector is no exception. Indeed, there is every indication today that ICT will play an increasingly pivotal role in determining the winners and losers in the auto industry.

With the rapid introduction of technologies geared to zero emissions, fuel efficiency, vehicle electrification and active safety features, carmakers will become ever more reliant on computer software to deliver functionality and features to showroom customers. What's more, the size and complexity of automotive software systems is expanding rapidly. Dealing with this complexity requires sophisticated software tools to manage the massive amounts of information used by engineers in such software development projects. As complexity increases, it also becomes more difficult to demonstrate safety of the automobile.

"For decades, the automobile has been evolving into a computational powerhouse," observes Dr. Justin Gammage, chief scientist at General Motors of Canada Ltd. "This trend will only accelerate as vehicle electrification increases."

To tackle the growing technological challenges fuelled by this trend, General Motors of Canada Ltd. and IBM Canada are mobilizing leading software engineers at seven Canadian universities and at a Montreal IT research centre under a massive new university-industry R&D collaboration dubbed the Network on Engineering Complex Software Intensive Systems for Automotive Systems (NECSIS). The network, backed by a five-year, $10.5 million grant from APC, also includes the participation of Malina Software Corp., a consultancy, based in Ottawa, which focuses on advanced software engineering methods.

Co-led by Dr. Tom Maibaum at McMaster University and
Dr. Joanne Atlee at the University of Waterlooo, NECSIS is focused on a software methodology, called Model-Driven Engineering (MDE), that promises to yield dramatic improvements in software-developer productivity and product quality. As the name suggests, MDE makes heavy use of models, which are simplified representations of complex software designs. IBM has been at the forefront of developments in MDE, as has Malina Software. General Motors has begun the adoption of the MDE paradigm and is interested in making it the basis of their software engineering efforts.

"MDE aids software developers by reducing the complexity of the designs and documents that they work with. It also allows some of the software to be generated automatically," explains Atlee. Moreover, she says, MDE enables early testing and de-bugging of the software because the models themselves can be tested and verified before the code even exists.

"With MDE, we believe we can be number one in the world in terms of productivity and quality of software," asserts Gammage. "Some of our software-based products are safety critical, as they influence the operation of essential vehicle functions, such as steering, braking and propulsion. Because of safety demands, we must get the product right from the outset, and this approach will give us the confidence that the programs we are developing contain no mission-critical defects."

Today, an average GM vehicle contains over 50 Electronic Control Units (ECU) supported by 100 million lines of software code. That's a far cry from a decade ago when a high-end GM car contained only 20 ECUs and about one million lines of code.

In addition to empowering GM's in-house software developers to be more productive, MDE will also impact the automaker's supply chain. In fact, many of the components and sub-systems GM buys in Canada contain embedded software and controls.

"An enormous amount of code is buried inside what people on the surface see as a mechanical device," notes Gammage. "As we look at where the new jobs are being created and where the new innovations are going to come from in the auto sector, software engineering is becoming increasingly important."

Given the growing importance of software engineering to the auto industry, Gammage says the federal government should be lauded for choosing ICT as a priority under its 2007 Science & Technology Strategy.

"Canada has created an enormous innovation engine around software engineering, and we're confident that NECSIS will provide the foundation for other automotive R&D collaborations with Canada's highly talented software engineering research community."