Amazon seeks to revolutionise car production via the cloud

But should car company employees be worried by Amazon’s advances?

Amazon involvement in car production

If you want to know why the world’s car makers are currently bashing down the door of cloud computing experts, there’s a simple answer — as Woodward and Bernstein were so famously advised, follow the money.

The potential savings on the table from harnessing the super-computing potential of ‘the cloud’ are manifest.

Take Renault as a perfect example. The French car maker recently announced that it has created the first motor industry ‘metaverse.’ What does that mean? It means that it has digitally linked all of its production lines, all of its supply chain, and almost every single item that flows in and out through the gates of its factories.

Essentially, Renault has created a ‘digital twin’ of its production processes, and this allows it to work out, theoretically, how things should look and flow when everything is perfect and then use that as a model to seek out real-world imperfection and deal with it. Deal with the imperfection, and you’re saving money — Renault estimates that since it started working on this ‘metaverse’ project in 2016, it has helped to find €780 million in savings.


“This industrial metaverse is unique and enables us to activate previously invisible efficiency and performance levers, to the benefit of people and the environment,” said Patrice Haettel, Renault’s vice president in charge of industrial strategy. “The management of data at Group level allows us to monitor, for example, the energy consumption of all our industrial and non-industrial sites in detail, and above all to optimise them in real time when a plant is stopped.”

Amazon is one of the biggest global players when it comes to working in the cloud, and while most of us still think of Amazon as an online retailer and occasionally film producer, its Amazon Web Services (AWS) offshoot is out there selling cloud computing solutions to the world’s car makers (and any other company that wants in, of course).

One of the biggest car makers in the world is already an AWS customer — Volkswagen is building what it calls the Volkswagen Industrial Cloud through AWS’s services, and it reckons that it can achieve a 30 per cent increase in productivity, a 30 per cent decrease in factory costs, and €1 billion in supply chain savings. A one-third decrease in factory costs for a company the size of Volkswagen means that we’re talking multiple billions of savings.

Wendy Bauer Amazon

Wendy Bauer is Amazon Web Services’ general manager for all things automotive, and sat down to chat with The Irish Times at AWS’s annual conference in Las Vegas. “We have three core pillars, which we like to call future, faster, together,” says Bauer. “It’s about bringing to the automotive industry our services, such as storage, computing, internet of things, machine learning, analytics and so on. Many of these we are now custom-building for the automotive industry.”

The key element is the ‘faster’ part. According to Bauer, by using AWS’ services car makers can “get to the optimised solution in a very fast way. Because we believe in speed. And we know this industry is really seeking to move fast and to innovate.”

The biggest issue currently facing the industry is, of course, the ongoing crunch in the supply of components, especially computer chips. At the risk of bolting the computing gate after the digital horse has departed, could AWS’s services have helped the industry to avoid these supply chain woes?

“The supply chain topic is very, very important,” Bauer tells The Irish Times. “We now have a specific AWS supply chain solution offering, which can help to manage the supply chain data across many companies, and yes you could say that maybe our customers could see that maybe there could be a shortage in silicon chips, and at least then they know where it is, or what they have, and maximise and make the best decision based on their current state. And now, the topic of software supply chain is becoming a very big thing, especially as the industry moves towards software-defined vehicles.”

Software seems now to be tripping up car makers almost as much as the physical chips needed to run the stuff.

Volkswagen, for instance, announced that it would be extending the life of its current MEB electric car architecture as its replacement has been delayed by continuing software issues. The much-vaunted Audi ‘Artemis’ future car project has, according to Germany’s Automobilwoche, been cancelled entirely because of software delays and problems.

AWS’s systems certainly seem to be able to offer a shortcut out of software development hell, simply thanks to the power potential of cloud computing. Grant Courville is vice president of Blackberry’s automotive products and strategy.

While you might think that Blackberry - once omnipotent in the smartphone market - had disappeared, it’s actually something of a giant in the car software world, supplying operating systems for touchscreens and digital instrument panels to many of the biggest car makers. According to Courville, cloud computing can dramatically speed up the development of in-car software.

“When you’re developing a new software system, you’ll have host machine, which will probably be your laptop or desktop, and you’ll have a target machine, which will either be a computer at the car maker’s factory, or possibly a prototype piece of hardware such as a touchscreen,” Courville told The Irish Times.

“What they want to be able to do is also be able to test their software and do so rapidly, iteratively. By switching to the cloud, now you can have, say, an Amazon Machine Image AMI with our exact same operating system, so now I’m able to test out my software in the cloud. All of a sudden through easy access to the cloud, I can also scale tremendously. So if it’s a software system that I want to run that can benefit from millions of iterations and test runs, I can operate and run those models in the cloud and I can do that in, say, seconds or minutes versus hours.”

All of which is terrific from the view of making the background development of cars and their various systems speedier and more efficient, but a question must surely be asked - is it right to let a company such as Amazon embed itself deeply in the global motor industry? After all, car company jobs tend to be both unionised and well-paid, and therefore are of great benefit to the broader communities in which those companies operate and exist. Amazon, by contrast, has been criticised both for its employment practices, especially its stance on unionised workers, and for its recent round of lay-offs. The Irish Times asked Bauer if car company employees should be nervous when it is announced that Amazon is working with their employer?

“We have a lot of conversations with our customers in the automotive industry, trying to really focus in on ‘what is the business problem that I’m trying to solve?’” she says. “And in the automotive industry, in common with lots of industries, the talk is around the shortage of talent in the industry. And a common problem our customers are talking to us about is getting the right tools and capabilities in the hands of their employees.

“Simultaneously we have efforts around skilling and re-skilling because they want to have their employees shift over to doing a more valuable process, or applying their knowledge better. And so our conversations and the work we’re doing with our customers is really around re-skilling so that they can shift to higher value added work where they actually also see greater employee engagement and even excitement coming out of that.

“An example of that is our work with BMW, and how we’ve helped 5,000 BMW employees develop data engineering skills. It’s really shifted how their employees spend their time, from what you might call tasks of the past, to now really innovative tasks that actually excite the employees. So they’ve gotten new skills and put them to work in a way that is aligned to the company’s future vision, and they see the business outcomes such as the savings to BMW and the improved products to their customers. I think back to the point of fear of employment, I think we’re seeing enough really positive success examples that are causing companies and employees to get excited about the possibilities, and that over time they’ll gain confidence in that side of it.”

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring