MotorTrend, in partnership with BlackBerry, set out to highlight the heroes of the Software-Defined Vehicle revolution. The pioneers who led the way and the innovators behind what’s to come. These are the people plotting the future of transportation as we know it, using software as the catalyst. In order to achieve this, MotorTrend created a 172-page book, a 22-minute documentary, and hosted the first-annual Software-Defined Vehicle Innovator Awards in Las Vegas during CES 2023. Click Here to download the 172-page eBook and watch the Coding The Car documentary. A version of one of the stories  from the Coding the Car publication is presented below.

Although the concept of a software-defined vehicle remains a work in progress, a number of cars over the past 25 years have embodied the spirit of the SDV. They’re vehicles that altered the automotive landscape thanks to their groundbreaking technology. They challenged preconceived notions, spurred on new development, and spawned more creativity. In many ways, these cars are the reason why the industry is where it stands today—on the brink of a technological revolution.

1997 GM EV1

While it may seem primitive by today’s electric-vehicle standards, the General Motors EV1 was a tech tour de force in its day. The “137-horsepower, two-seat electric toothbrush,” as MotorTrend called it back in June 1996, was hugely impressive. Despite its 70-90-mile claimed range (the EPA rated it at 55 miles), the EV1 was surprisingly fun to drive and livable for day-to-day commutes. GM’s pioneering EV lacked the fancy screens we expect in modern EVs, but in the days of Windows 95 and before the widespread adoption of cell phones, it still featured an innovative use of technology, including both throttle- and brake-by-wire. Thanks to its software, starting the car was an occasion; it required the driver to input a simple code into the center-console keypad, reminiscent of Magnum P.I. ‘s Ferrari 308 security system, after which an onboard diagnostics program tested the EV1’s systems before giving the driver the go-ahead.

1998 Toyota Prius

Around the same time that General Motors was experimenting with its first modern electric vehicle in sunny California and Arizona in 1997, Toyota was testing the world’s first mass-production hybrid-powered vehicle in its home market. Designed as a car for the 21st century, the original Prius still has much in common with today’s model from a packaging and powertrain perspective. The four-door sedan featured the then-novel use of a 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine and electric motor combination, backed by a then-cutting-edge nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack and a continuously variable transmission. With hybrids everywhere these days, it’s easy to forget just how complicated they are—when is it most efficient to use the motor alone? Can the battery’s state of charge support the current driving conditions? Is the engine better utilized charging the battery or propelling the vehicle? And yet it all worked (relatively) seamlessly out of the gate on the the first Prius, which was a true testament to Toyota’s smart systems integration.

2002 GM Autonomy Concept

Although most of this list consists of cars that actually made it to serial production, GM’s AUTOnomy and Hy-wire concepts are worth mentioning because they foreshadowed several key technological innovations. Designed with the question, “What if we invented the automobile today rather than a century ago?” in mind, the AUTOnomy concept did a remarkably good job of predicting the future. At the core of the hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered AUTOnomy was a skateboard chassis with hub-mounted electric motors, which GM said promised endless customization for the vehicle designer and owner alike. (Maybe that’s the “autonomy” the oddly stylized name was referring to?) The AUTOnomy was followed up by 2003’s Hy-wire concept (named for its use of hydrogen and drive-by-wire controls). Utilizing the AUTOnomy platform, the Hy-wire made good on the AUTOnomy’s promise of freedom, thanks in part to its floating dashboard, aircraft-style yoke, and digital controls.

2003 Hy-Wire Concept

2008 Tesla Roadster

It’s easy to be cynical about the Tesla Roadster (“It’s just an electric-powered Lotus Elise!” was a common refrain), but Tesla’s first production car also turned out to be a game changer on several fronts. Ignoring its long list of EV firsts (first production EV to use lithium-ion batteries, first EV to crest 200 miles on a charge—you get the picture), the Roadster gave us an early peek at what the EV user experience could be. Thanks to its 7.0-inch centrally mounted display, Roadster owners could monitor range, efficiency, and even the number of barrels of oil saved by driving electric, in real time.

2010 Chevrolet EN-V 2.0

Short for “Electric Networked-Vehicle” the General Motors and Segway EN-V joint venture and the 2011 Chevrolet EN-V 2.0 follow-up were an innovative series of forward-looking concepts that previewed many of the future mobility solutions companies such as Cruise and Waymo are working to develop today. Designed for congested urban areas, these electric-powered, personal-mobility pods (the EN-V is a two-wheeler, the 2.0 a four-wheeler) could be driven either via a yoke or autonomously. When operating autonomously, the EN-Vs were envisioned to use vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, as well as GPS, radar, and cameras to navigate either individually or in a platoon.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

It’s crazy to think about, but the original Chevrolet Volt, the 2011 MotorTrend Car of the Year, was so far ahead of its time that it’d still likely be considered among the top of the plug-in hybrid heap in 2022 if it were still being produced, thanks to its efficient powertrain and 35 miles of electric-only range. “The Volt boasts some of the most advanced engineering ever seen in a mainstream American automobile,” we wrote. “The powertrain allows the car to run as an EV, a series hybrid, or a parallel hybrid, depending on how far you drive and how you drive.” While its clever programming was obviously the driving factor behind the Volt’s seamless systems integration, the Chevy PHEV was forward-looking when it came to infotainment, too. Owners could pair the Volt with their smartphone and monitor charge and fuel status, take a look at service needs, and even send turn-by-turn directions from their phone to the car.

2011 Nissan Leaf

With smartphones growing increasingly common at the time of its launch, the Nissan Leaf (like the Volt) represented a couple major steps forward in the connected-car arena. The Leaf combined onboard telematics with a smartphone app to allow owners to set charge times, monitor battery status, and—most important for an electric car—route plan around the far more sparse charging networks of the day. The Leaf also helped pioneer over-the-air updates (first via the 2G network, later upgraded to 3G), allowing Nissan to add a growing network of charging stations to the Leaf’s onboard navigation system long after it went on sale.

2012 Tesla Model S

If the Volt and Leaf represented several steps toward realizing the concept of the software-defined vehicle, the Tesla Model S proved to be the leap. The first car fully Tesla designed, engineered, and built, the Model S turned out to be the game-changing electric-powered vehicle that’ll likely go down as the most important car of the 21st century. “The whole car is a compellingly imaginative rethinking of how we interact with cars in the first place,” we wrote after one of MotorTrend’s first drives of the sedan. “For instance? There’s no actual ‘on’ button. The Model S ‘knows’ you’re ready to drive by recognizing that you’ve gotten in (door opens and closes, weight on the driver’s seat), are ready to drive (seatbelt latched), and are taking action (tapping the brake pedal). That’s it.” More than that, Tesla has continued to keep the Model S fresh by adding (and taking away) multiple features and apps over its 10-year-and-counting life cycle.

2012 Toyota RAV4 EV

Hitting the market a few months after the Model S, the 2012 Toyota RAV4 EV was a clear sign that legacy automakers were beginning to rethink how they approached EVs. Although Toyota sold a RAV4 EV of its own in the late ’90s and early 2000s and had already found success with the Prius (both of which used NiMh batteries), Tesla’s expertise in both utilizing and continuously monitoring its lithium-ion batteries convinced Toyota to partner with the American upstart to build a second RAV4 EV. The SUV featured a Model S battery pack and detuned motor but was otherwise manufactured and sold by Toyota while it worked on getting its electrification plans in shape. Mercedes-Benz wound up partnering with Tesla, too, utilizing its batteries and motors for its B-Class Electric Drive.


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