Everybody loves a car with a brain. Walt Disney’s 1968 movie “The Love Bug” launched a decades-long film and television career for Herbie, the intelligent Volkswagen Beetle. For viewers of a certain age, singer and actor David Hasselhoff will always be associated with KITT, the unflappable, indestructible Pontiac Firebird that starred alongside him in the 1980s TV series “Knight Rider.”
In the real world, the decade between “The Love Bug” and “Knight Rider” was the start of an automotive electronics revolution that has been accelerating ever since. In the early 1970s, electronic controls began to replace the mechanical systems that once managed fuel flow and ignition timing within the internal combustion engine. By the 1980s, those early analog circuits were being replaced by microprocessors. The speed, accuracy and flexibility of computer control allowed engineers to pursue a host of innovations in automotive safety and efficiency, from lean-burn engines to electronic stability control.
In the 21st century, the sophistication and complexity of in-car computer systems has exploded. A state-of-the-art vehicle from 2004 contained around 5 million lines of computer code. By 2013 that number was approaching 150 million. Today’s luxury vehicles include around 100 individual computers. Software accounts for around 10 percent of the value of a large passenger car today, and is forecast to account for 30 percent by 2030.