Transitioning from Vehicles to Mobility: DENSO Engineers Leverage Software Experience to Forge the Future of Mobility

DENSO is the world’s second-largest mega supplier of automotive components. Today’s vehicle systems are undergoing a major transformation, growing increasingly complex as automated driving, connected technologies, electric vehicle technologies and other innovations spread. DENSO creates and delivers such systems to automakers, and, with an eye to the future, is developing ever-more sophisticated software.

We talked about the advantages DENSO can offer together with Chief Software Officer Shinnosuke Hayashi, who is in charge of the Company’s software development overall, and Technical Advisor Takuya Oikawa.

Shinnosuke Hayashi
Shinnosuke Hayashi is DENSO’s chief software officer (CSwO), general manager of the Software Innovation Promotion Dept., executive director of the Mobility Systems Business Group (which handles electronic platforms and software), and president of DENSO CREATE.
Takuya Oikawa
Takuya Oikawa is the president and a technology enabler at Tably Incorporated, where he also serves as a technical advisor to DENSO.

New Value for the Future of Mobility Only Possible at DENSO, a Tier 1 Supplier

- The auto industry is currently undergoing revolutionary changes. What is DENSO’s part in this transition?

Hayashi:Ever since our founding, we’ve always aimed to use technologies to achieve dreams and make contributions for our customer. The act of achieving one’s dreams does not end at the concept phase; rather, one must work hard to create products and systems, and then improve them to a high enough level for global release. Because people entrust their lives to the cars in which they travel, it’s vital to ensure reliable product quality. We use dependable, reliable technologies to give concrete form to dreams, which is why our customers value you us as a Tier 1 supplier for the auto industry, more highly than any other industry player in the world.

n the coming era, cars will be connected with all of society. Therefore, we must create value that benefits mobility services for society as a whole in addition to providing greater value for vehicles alone. Despite this major shift, our goal of utilizing technologies to achieve dreams and contribute to customers remains unchanged. However, we must now widen the scope of our activities to encompass society-wide mobility services overall. In other words, this means expanding our role from an auto industry Tier 1 supplier to a mobility services Tier 1 provider.

- As automobiles evolve, what role do you think DENSO will play?

Hayashi:DENSO will create connections of various sorts, while also helping to realize a mobility-centered society that is environmentally friendly, offers safety and day to day peace that is defined by mutual harmony and understanding. Specifically, we aim to achieve a carbon-neutral world to help the environment, and also to give users greater peace of mind by eliminating traffic accidents.

Regarding the “connections” I mentioned, these can be divided into three main types. The first type is connections within the car itself: vehicles use mechanical technologies, electronics technologies and software technologies. All of these are interconnected within a single structural unit. DENSO has 50 years of experience in automotive electronics and 40 years in automotive software, so we can develop sophisticated systems by linking technologies in these fields. By creating various types of connections within the vehicle we can realize sophisticated systems and products with high added value. Just one example of our achievements in this area is the mobility computer system we’re currently working on, which is a central computer that controls the vehicle as a whole and brings together information.

The second type of “connections” are those with other cars, as well as those between cars and wider society. These entail connections with cars using IT software, cloud-networking software and the like. In the future, data will be managed using digital twins (virtual counterparts to actual products), which serve to connect physical and cyber objects. By using 5G and other communication technologies, we can connect cars with each other and also with their cyber counterparts, all in real time. The result will be utilization of data through digital twins rather than today’s back-and-forth exchanges of data, as well as AI-based predictions of future conditions and changes. By sharing these predictions, we’ll be able to build more fully optimized mobility systems.

An example of a digital twin using DENSO's Mobility IoT Core

In our future mobility-centered society, it’ll be important to ensure safety, peace of mind, and user convenience for everyone by improving vehicle safety while also preventing accidents and ensuring smooth traffic flows in urban areas. To these ends, we must forge connections between engineers in the auto industry and the IT industry, who have not typically worked together in the past. Such inter-industry collaborations will trigger chain reactions of widespread new-value creation.

DENSO has many associates from the IT field and other areas who chose a new career path and came to join us. By leveraging the strengths of engineers who are experts in automobiles and those who are experts in IT, we’re able to develop platform technologies that enable more rapid, reliable and convenient linking of automobiles both internally and externally. It’s really exciting to see people combine their knowledge to create something brand new in this way.
In the emerging mobility-oriented society, the true value of cars will not be what they offer as discrete, isolated products, but how they function as IoT devices to create new value for society as a whole in unprecedented ways through connections with other things and infrastructure.

Lastly, the third of the “connections” I mentioned are interconnections within the mobility-centered society as a whole. Put another way, these are connections between the various automakers who are also DENSO’s customers.

Our future mobility-centric society will use digital twin platforms to link together the cars produced by these numerous manufacturers. Through years of wide-ranging development projects together with our automaker customers, DENSO has cultivated a deep understanding of each manufacturer’s preferences and values, as well as a deep trust. Therefore, as we work to interlink large numbers of vehicles via digital twin platform technology, DENSO can serve as the go-between for these companies. I strongly feel that we need to meet all customers’ expectations and contribute to their further success.

Oikawa: I’ve been involved in IT for a long time now, and to be honest I didn’t know much about DENSO as a company before coming here. However, through researching DENSO on my own and talking to its employees, I now realize their huge scale of operations. Their annual R&D expenditure, for example, is 500 billion yen, which is roughly double that of even well-known major IT firms. I wasn’t previously aware of it, but now I understand just how influential DENSO is as a global organization.

They are particularly active in software development in areas such as automotive electronics and electronic control technologies, at a time when the auto industry is undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation. DENSO is actually a computer company, although many people are not aware of this. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but in fact they do have experience in software as well as solid technologies.

Connecting the Smaller Realm of Vehicle with the Wider Realm of Society

- How would you describe DENSO’s “three pillars” systems-building approach?

Hayashi:The three general technological fields in which DENSO is active are mechatronics, electronics and software. We utilize these three types of technology together as three pillars to support each system we build. This approach is exemplified in our high-precision fuel injection systems, next-generation inverters, automobile cockpit systems, advanced safety systems and other products. I believe the three-pillar system development approach enables us to fully understand the true needs of our customers, achieve designs with optimized system architecture, and effectively combine differing technologies. These are the strengths of our three-pillar system-building philosophy.

- In which areas do you plan to utilize these strengths?

Hayashi:Even though our work centers on systems, I think we need to focus more on software in the future. The emerging mobility-oriented society will see a greater focus on software as the most valuable aspect of a vehicle. There will be a shift toward more software-rich systems in forms such as automated driving technologies, over-the-air (OTA) programming, integrated cockpit systems, and comprehensive electronic platforms for connections within the car and with the outside world.

As I said, we must fully understand the true needs of our customers, achieve designs with optimized system architecture, and effectively combine differing technologies, because these will be vital sources of strength to build better systems. The future will bring about expansions in various technologies, so we want to make use of these strengths.

Oikawa: I used to view vehicles as closed, isolated systems, but my thinking has changed completely thanks to what I’ve learned while working at DENSO. If we imagine the Internet as a “realm” spanning the world and providing cyber-connections, then we can similarly look at cars as small realms within that larger realm. That’s how I’ve come to see things.

Each vehicle has more than 100 electronic control units (ECUs), and of course these are networked together. Such networks incorporate controller area network (CAN) communication protocols developed for high-speed networks in vehicles, and there are also separate networks for sensors, actuators and other such components. I used to work with computer operating systems, and the in-vehicle setup seems to be essentially arranged in the same way. It’s also similar to the manner in which modern-day cloud micro-services are linked together. Therefore, even if one views the automobile as a closed, isolated system—a small realm—it is a vast and highly complex realm in its own right.

Also, as we all expected, vehicle cloud networking is set to become an industry standard. This practice of connecting products and objects with the rest of the world has taken off in the past few years, and I think vehicles will transform from an isolated small realm to one that is connected with mid-sized and large realms around it. This will make the world a better place.

Engineers Improve Technologies by Taking a Product Through to Completion

- What does DENSO consider to be important for the mobility-centered society of the future?

Hayashi:We believe the engineering skills will be crucial. DENSO has software engineers from the differing fields of embedded software and IT cloud networking. The vehicle embedded software engineers work with in-car control components and electronics, whereas the IT cloud networking engineers work with communications, connected technologies and other things relating to the world outside of the car. By being able to control the boundary points between the inside and outside of the vehicle, we will gain control over the future of mobility.

- To bolster your software-related efforts, how do you approach training for the engineers who are in charge of development?

Hayashi:We’re working hard on building a training system that engineers can use for independent study. This system includes a wide array of courses, ranging from basic education on the fundamentals of automotive software, to more advanced education in architecture, project management and similar areas. We also offer more practical, hands-on training courses.

Because the end goal of development is to turn dreams into reality, simply educating engineers by the book is not enough. Education programs must include regular opportunities for engineers to learn technologies and techniques in practical, hands-on ways. Furthermore, we have introduced IT-type courses into the system in recent years in light of advancements in CASE (connected, autonomous, shared and electric) technologies and implementations.

Having automotive engineers learn about new IT technologies enables us to provide new value, which is another advantage. We want to create a company environment in which engineers can choose and pursue their own career paths.

In addition to education, we try to offer ways for engineers to put their skills to the test. During our recent in-house Cloud Contest, for example, we had 230 participants, including vehicle embedded software engineers as well as others not involved in software engineering. All age groups, from young company members to seasoned veterans, pitted their skills against each other, dividing into teams and vying for the best performance and speed in solving a variety of cloud system failures. This type of competition is really useful, as it provides an opportunity for participants to have fun while also learning new things. I too participated in the competition, but I just slowed down the rest of my team [laughs]. This is just one example of the various events we want to hold so that engineers experienced with electronic device control software can work with and learn about cloud technologies.

Oikawa:Software and hardware are not discrete things separated by clear boundaries. There are many boundary-straddling applications—where a certain technology can be implemented via either software or hardware, for instance—and personnel who can leverage either approach as necessary will have an advantage in the future.

As a hardware-related example, think about field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that are integrated circuits that can be configured as needed after their manufacture. Software-related examples include processors designed for TensorFlow, which was developed by Google. Because we must operate within a wide range of limitations and constraints, being able to work on either side of that boundary will prove to be extremely handy. DENSO has huge potential because it is experienced in both hardware and software, and as an engineer I find the work environment to be a lot of fun.

From an engineer’s perspective, vehicle-related development involves a vast array of different technologies, which are brought together and integrated to create the real-life experience of driving a car. This type of development work offers the thrill of creating something tangible. Even now, there are a lot of different component technologies in the world. However, even in an area like the IoT, there are few examples of such technologies actually being deployed and used in society.

The field of mobility will change a lot over the next 15, 10, even 5 years, and it’s clear that vehicles are where the most advanced technological developments and deployments in society will take place. The auto industry is said to be undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation. In addition to advancements made in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), automated driving (AD) is emerging as well. That’s why developing automobiles is so fun—we actually get to make those sorts of things! These developments will give us the opportunity to actualize and experience a cyber–physical world, much like the “Society 5.0” envisioned by the Japanese government. I think our wide-ranging pursuits, which transcend the bounds of individual fields like automobiles and mobility, are what make working at DENSO so interesting.

Engineers Contributing to Society as a Whole through Automobiles

- What is DENSO’s mission within this once-in-a-century auto industry transformation?

Hayashi:As we transition into a new era of a mobility-centered society, the vehicle’s value will be defined by its role as an IoT device in addition to its existing value as an enjoyable means of transport. As I mentioned earlier, DENSO is transforming itself from an auto industry Tier 1 supplier into a mobility services Tier 1 provider. This means leveraging the strengths we have fostered through automotive development to connect cars with other cars, connect with societal infrastructure, and create connections throughout our mobility-centered society, thus contributing to society as a whole.

Our engineers’ reliable technologies—both well-established and leading-edge—will not only benefit automotive products, but also support society overall in countless ways behind the scenes. At DENSO, we also want to provide peace of mind throughout society by realizing a world free from environmental problems and traffic accidents, as stated in our long-term vision.

We consider that the four priority areas of electrification, automated driving, connected technologies, and non-automotive fields (which include factory automation and agriculture) will be highly influential in the future. We’re devoting great efforts in areas other than automobiles, such as developing next-generation greenhouses for agriculture, developing drones and urban air vehicles (UAVs) for inspecting bridges, researching microalgae, and conducting projects in a wide array of other areas.

- In the same way that DENSO builds connections with automakers, are you developing software on a global scale?

Hayashi: Yes, DENSO pursues software development on a global scale. In the United States, we have a group in Detroit creating system products geared toward North American customers, and in Seattle and Silicon Valley we’re involved in joint development projects and research on cutting-edge software development. In Germany, we have a group in Munich focused on technology standardization for Europe, working with automotive organizations involved in the AUTOSAR (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture) global development partnership project to develop standard specifications.

Furthermore, we have an agile development team in Shanghai that is developing new mobility services for China, a model-based development center in Thailand, software development centers in India and the Philippines, and others. In each of these, we take advantage of local strengths and expertise in our development activities. Additionally, we have system-product software development groups in various countries which operate in accordance with the needs of automakers around the world.

While local engineers from overseas play a big part in what we do, we also send a lot of Japanese engineers to various parts of the world where they learn local technologies and techniques while building a global software network. This is all part of a bigger plan to contribute to the global mobility-centered society through human resources and technologies.

At the same time, DENSO is working to strengthen technology and human resource networking in the software field with Group companies including DENSO CREATE, DENSO TECHNO, DENSO IT Laboratory and others in the various fields in which they excel, all as part of efforts to improve the software-related capabilities of the Group as a whole.

However, our experience and expertise was originally cultivated in the auto industry, and our efforts to connect cars with society and the world does not mean we will stop working on automobiles. Innovation will continue in the automotive field. Using the base we have built in the auto industry over decades, we will remain focused on automobiles and continue to make improvements, while also expanding our activities to encompass society as a whole.

Our interview with Shinnosuke Hayashi and Takuya Oikawa centered on the idea of three-pillar system-building strengths and gave us a glimpse into the fascinating world of software development at DENSO and the Company’s approaches as a Tier 1 supplier shifting their focus to mobility-centered society as a whole. It also showed how DENSO approaches the training and education of its software engineers, who talk and work with one another, continue to refine their techniques and technologies, and take advantage of the Company’s working environment to pursue their own career paths.

As an organization of specialists capable of turning ideas into reality, DENSO will undoubtedly remain active globally and change the future for all of us.

Author: Tech Crunch Japan