Traffic Jam on the Road to Linux in Cars

A little before Christmas, I wrote about some of the important markets where Linux was starting to make its mark, notably gaming and the Internet of things. One sector where Linux has been active for a while is that of cars. As these become...

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A little before Christmas, I wrote about some of the important markets where Linux was starting to make its mark, notably gaming and the Internet of things. One sector where Linux has been active for a while is that of cars. As these become more and more infused with digital elements – be it in-car entertainment or control systems – so the need for an operating system that ties it all together becomes more urgent. As for elsewhere, Linux is the perfect choice: low-cost, flexible, secure, robust etc.

No wonder, then, that one of the first such Linux-based digital car systems goes back all the way to 2009. It’s called Genivi, and here’s how it describes itself:

The GENIVI (pronounced gen-ee-vee) Alliance is a non-profit industry alliance committed to driving the broad adoption of an In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) open-source development platform.

IVI is a rapidly growing and evolving field that covers entertainment and information features and functionality available in automobiles. IVI covers many types of vehicle infotainment applications including music, news and multimedia, navigation and location services, telephony, internet services and more.

Here’s how Genivi works with the open source community:

GENIVI employs an “upstream first” model and actively adopts and/or adapts existing components residing in the FOSS community to meet the defined requirements for its IVI software platform. In some cases, however, software to meet defined requirements does not exist in any upstream project. In those cases, GENIVI hosts projects that facilitate the development of required functionality in an open and collaborative manner, consistent with the best practices of other FOSS projects. Further, cases may exist for new projects to be launched which implement automotive functionality not yet defined by GENIVI or that may employ a different and innovative approach that GENIVI should consider for future platform releases.

Genivi is hosted by the Linux Foundation, as is another major project in this area, Automotive Grade Linux:

Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) is an open collaboration between contributors from the Automotive Industry, the Communications Industry, Semiconductor Industry, Academia, Community and others, combining open source components into a core operating system software stack suitable for automotive applications.

AGL builds upon over $10B of investment made in the Linux kernel, as well as many other open-source software projects. It is leveraging the technology contributions made by the Communications, Consumer Electronics, and Enterprise Computing Industries while defining and developing new functionality.

The Automotive Grade Linux Workgroup will work with the Tizen project as the reference distribution to develop a reference platform that is optimized for a broad set of automotive applications ranging from Instrumentation Cluster to In-Vehicle-Infotainment (IVI) and more. The Linux Foundation will host this effort, providing a neutral environment for collaboration among the Linux kernel community, other open source software communities and the automotive industry.

That was announced just over a year ago, and things have been relatively quiet since then. But all that changed this week with another major entrant to the world of Linux-based digital car systems:

Extending the success of the Android ecosystem, which has seen over one billion devices activated to date, a coalition of auto and technology companies announced today a new industry alliance aimed at bringing the Android platform to a device that’s always been mobile: the car.

Audi, GM, Google, Honda, Hyundai and NVIDIA have joined together to form the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a global alliance of technology and auto industry leaders committed to bringing the Android platform to cars starting in 2014. The OAA is dedicated to a common platform that will drive innovation, and make technology in the car safer and more intuitive for everyone.

The OAA is aimed at accelerating auto innovation with an approach that offers openness, customization and scale, key tenets that have already made Android a familiar part of millions of people’s lives. This open development model and common platform will allow automakers to more easily bring cutting-edge technology to their drivers, and create new opportunities for developers to deliver powerful experiences for drivers and passengers in a safe and scalable way.

Details about what exactly the new Open Automotive Alliance will get up to are rather scant. Here’s what the FAQ says:

How will Android work inside of the automobile?

We’re working with our partners to enable better integration between cars and Android devices in order to create a safer, car optimized experience. We’re also developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device. Stay tuned for more details coming soon.

Clearly, there will be considerable overlap with both Genivi and Automotive Grade Linux Workgroup. That’s partly a sign of the vitality of open source in this area, one of whose strengths is choice. Some might worry that this will weaken all of these efforts, but I don’t think that’s the case. The reason is that all of them have taken Linux as their foundation; that makes that fundamentally compatible, at least at the lower levels of the stack, and I would expect to see some or all of the platforms move closer together, and finally merge.

After all, they are all based on openness and interoperability – that’s the huge plus of open systems and open source. The more they can work together, the more powerful their offerings will become, especially compared to attempts to create closed-source rivals. Manufacturers of cars and the equipment found within them will naturally gravitate towards the option that gives them the greatest flexibility and freedom, and that means the most open. It’s one reason why it is simply inevitable that Linux and open source will form the basis of the completely digital systems that will power vehicles in the future. 2014 might not quite be the year of Linux in the car, but it probably won’t be too long afterwards.

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