What Automotive Engineers Need to Know about Software Innovation

Over the past year, the Worthwhile team has worked with a lot of engineers in the automotive industry. We’ve done projects with three major automotive companies—two Tier 1 suppliers and one OEM.

This means we have spent a lot of time talking with and working with engineers of various kinds. It’s great, because engineers think a lot like software developers. (There’s a good reason we call our development team members software engineers.)

Over the many conversations we’ve had with engineers of various stripes over the last year or so, we’ve noticed that while our mindsets sync with theirs in many ways, there are a few key places where engineers need to change their way of thinking just a bit in order to successfully plan and build a software project

Here are five of the big ones:

1. Software can be built in an agile way

Automotive manufacturing processes are waterfall by nature. You create plans, and then a prototype, and then test it, and then set the production line to manufacture a part. These steps need to be done in order to create quality parts with durability and reliability.

You can build software this way, but it’s not the only way to do it. You can also build software in an agile way—sketch out a plan, start writing code, test what you have, and adjust. And these two options are not binary—you can skew toward a little more planning, or a little more flexibility.

Agile software development may not be the right way to build software in every case, but sometimes it is. So automotive industry leaders and engineers need to understand how agile works and get comfortable enough with the process so that they can use it when the software initiative calls for it.

2. It’s OK to start with an MVP

In the automotive realm, any product launched into the market—from a ball bearing to a luxury car—needs to be a finished product. But that’s not necessarily true with software. With software, you can launch a minimum viable product (MVP) and then iterate with future launches.

This difference can be jarring to someone who is used to buttoning up every detail before entering the market. But engineers need to realize that launched a streamlined MVP can actually create a lot of benefits, including:
* Quicker time to market
* Finding out what users actually want before adding features
* Fixing minor problems before they become major

When engineers understand the real value that an MVP approach can bring, they will embrace it. It just requires an open mind and a little research.

3. Software is relatively easy to change post-launch

When automotive engineers design a product, even the smallest change has huge implications—from additional testing to assembly-line changes to supply-chain needs. It’s a big deal.

No wonder that engineers who live in this world—and who have a justified fear of recalls—often think of product changes as massive expenses. But software doesn’t work that way. Yes, some changes to software have ripple effects, but in the end the changes can be made with relatively low stakes.

The implications of this difference transform the way you look at a project. When you’re building a tire or a steering column assembly, you can’t guess if it will work. But when you’re building software or some kind of Industry 4.0 solution, you can. By testing in real-life situations and then iterating based on what you learn, you can actually achieve innovative goals more quickly than if you figure everything out before you begin.

4. Spreadsheets need to be replaced in the long run

Engineers live in spreadsheets, and they can do amazing things with them. The fact that spreadsheets work for engineers sometimes creates the illusion that spreadsheets are an acceptable solution.

They’re not—and that’s because of data. The data in your spreadsheet is only accurate for (a) a specific user and (b) a specific point in time. And that means that spreadsheets isolate data, reports, analytics, and finding. The magic one engineer can do in a spreadsheet may not be repeatable, and because data changes it is certainly not sustainable.

For data to be truly useful, it needs to escape silos disguised as spreadsheets and move into a constantly updated, easily accessed portal. And engineers should be able to do everything with that data there that they can do in a spreadsheet, in order to maintain the reporting and analysis power they currently have.

This is a big goal, but this is the direction that big data is leading the automotive industry. Even small steps in this direction will set your company up for success in the long run.

5. More features equals more money

Engineers tend to think not just about core cases but about edge cases. That’s because whatever component they’re building needs to work in ice, heat, steep angles, and all sorts of other conditions.

But innovation via software is a little different. Thinking about every edge case leads to an explosion in functionality, which balloons cost and elongates timelines. So when it comes to software and digital innovation, it’s better to focus first on core functionality and then add edge cases after launch.


Automotive engineers, as a group, will greatly benefit from transformational innovation in business—especially the kind of innovation that software development can provide. They just need the right mindset in order to successfully innovate. With the end goals in mind, and a bit of flexibility in process, engineers and their companies will reap the benefits of (and ROI created by) innovation in short order.

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We'll never tell you a lie, but we might tell you a success story that protects the intellectual property of our clients and partners. Our Worthwhile Storyteller is an amalgamation of all of our thoughts, experience, and expertise brought together to give you the facts about our relentless improvement in the software development space.