To say the automotive industry has undergone major change over the last decade or so would be a considerable understatement.

Through rapidly changing environmental requirements, financial downturns, government bailouts and ever-increasing customer expectations, the industry has had to reinvent many of the traditional approaches that worked for most of the last century.

For 21st-century automakers, time-to-market never has been a more critical element of product development than it is today. Consumers eagerly await the latest new model with the coolest new features, which is great news for the companies churning out new technology.

It’s not so great for those relying on brand loyalty to trump the “cool” factor.

How can the automotive industry speed up the development of new cars? Answering that would take a book, not an article, so let’s focus on one key group: software developers.

Many software developers have adopted a new technique called “continuous delivery,” which automates and improves development processes through the product lifecycle to achieve production as quickly and reliably as possible.

Software cycle times in the automotive industry have been shortening rapidly as consumers have become accustomed to the latest innovations, many of which are software-driven. Think SatNav, self-parking, adaptive cruise control, improved power/fuel management. Even if fully automated delivery from designer or programmer to the assembly line isn’t yet achievable, speeding the processes from inception to integration testing can bring huge improvements in overall production cycle times.

With so much testing now being performed in computer models and simulators, it may be possible to see code or design changes getting into “acceptance testing” within days or even hours. Manual processes introduce effort and risk. Fast cycles demand automated processes.

As is well understood in the auto industry, the move from manual assembly to mass production made an enormous impact on cost of production and quality. Production of software or embedded systems is no different.

If deploying changes relies on manual processes, then errors will occur. That could be true for any number of reasons, such as the “expert” who normally does the releases not being available or some unaccounted-for change in the environment.

What ensures that manual processes are recorded and validated? As systems become more complex, it’s doubtful a single person really can know enough about all the components to deploy them accurately.

At the core of automated systems, versioning is a critical requirement, not just to support automation, but also for compliance.

The automotive industry is seeing increased regulation such as ISO 26262 for Functional Safety and ISO 16949 for Quality Management. They both place increasing demands on manufacturers to show they have safety and quality processes in place and that those processes are being followed.

This requires the ability to maintain records of what is being implemented, what is changing and who is making the change. The only way to ensure compliance is via a version-management repository that can securely store all assets generated during vehicle design and build including hardware designs, software source code, documentation, test plans and test results.

With such a broad set of assets being stored, an equally diverse set of contributors will be involved – from C programmers, through to graphic artists designing maps and icons for the SatNav to accountants keeping track of production costs.

Configuration management is critical to embedded-systems development. Systems such as braking is a collection of components (hydraulics, pads, firmware, sensors, etc.,) delivered into different configurations (e.g., variants of the same vehicle or different models within the manufacturer’s range).

Being able to manage components from different suppliers, whether inside your organization or not and where each configuration is being delivered, is critical for quality and compliance recording.

Continuous delivery is a long and complex path, but there's a huge payoff at the end. In the age of tech-savvy and impatient consumers, decreased product cycles can mean the difference between failure and success.

Mark Warren is marketing director-Europe for Perforce Software and has more than 25 years’ experience as a consumer and vendor of enterprise development and configuration management products. Perforce’s products are used by more than 10,500 organizations worldwide. www.perforce.com