Cars that update like smartphones, adjusting features based on the driver’s preferences? The future is now for Japan’s DENSO Corporation, one of the biggest automotive components suppliers in the world.

With the advent of connected cars, DENSO established a Digital Innovation Department to expand its business beyond the critical layer of the engine, braking systems, and other automotive parts into the non-critical analytics and entertainment layer. Comparing connected cars to smartphones, R&D Product Manager Seiichi Koizumi says DENSO wants the ability to quickly and easily develop and install apps for the “blank slate” of the car, and iterate them based on the driver’s preferences. Thus “we need a flexible application platform,” he says.

But working on vehicle edge and vehicle cloud products meant there were several technical challenges: “the amount of computing resources, the occasional lack of mobile signal, and an enormous number of distributed vehicles,” says Koizumi. “We are tackling these challenges to create an integrated vehicle edge/cloud platform.”

With a vehicle edge computer, a private Kubernetes cloud, and managed Kubernetes on GKE, EKS, and AKS, DENSO now has a 2-month development cycle for non-critical apps, compared to 2-3 years for traditional, critical-layer development. The company releases 10 new applications a year. And cloud native technologies have enabled DENSO to deliver these applications via its new dash cam, which has a secure connection that collects data to the cloud.

The Digital Innovation Department is known as “Noah’s Ark,” and it has grown from 2 members to 70-with plans to more than double in the next year. The way they operate is completely different from the traditional Japanese automotive culture. But just as the company embraced change brought by hybrid cars in the past decade, Koizumi says, they’re doing it again now, as technology companies have moved into the connected car space. “Another disruptive innovation is coming,” he says, “so to survive in this situation, we need to change our culture.”

For more about DENSO’s cloud native journey, read the full case study.