Q&A: Potential and pitfalls of open source in automotive

Q&A: Potential and pitfalls of open source in automotive

Open-source software (OSS) is slowly making its way into cars, beginning with non-critical systems like infotainment.

With OSS, a company can use the work of a global developer community without having to license software or pay royalties. There are trade-offs, however. Companies must learn to work within the OSS licensing terms and integrate public code with proprietary software, which costs money.

In his 25 years in the design automation and IT/engineering markets, Patterson has worked on everything from wire harness design and mechatronics to software building and test process automation. For the last year, he's focused on promoting Mentor's automotive infotainment solutions, which are based on GENIVI-compliant, embedded Linux.

To benefit from OSS efficiencies, car makers have to overcome their natural secretiveness while OSS must prove its security and reliability, according to Patterson. He spoke to TU’s Susan Kuchinskas.

Mentor offers a GENIVI-compliant infotainment platform, as well as other open-source automotive offerings. Can you give us a sense of which of your offerings are receiving take-up?

We embraced early on the desire of engineers to use open source, focusing on the tools and support we can wrap around it. Mentor provides a Linux platform. Linux in cars has started in non-critical applications. These applications need a very capable, multi-tasking and flexible operating system, such as Linux, with wide-ranging driver and peripheral support.

We've got around seven automotive tier 1 suppliers in development and three in production. The Cadillac CUE system is in production, and we are working on a Bosch/Denso joint venture. I'm unable to name the others.

What has Mentor's work with OEM clients taught you about the industry's readiness to embrace open source?

The automotive industry is very cautious about open source, the liability and security issues, quality, testing and differentiation. This is all new territory for which they may not have experience. The historic view of OSS is that it is a free-for-all with many contributors and little quality control. This is completely at odds with a car-maker's requirement to have close quality management and control. The massive cost of developing software has forced car makers to change their approach in the areas of non-differentiating technology. The need for rigorous testing has not gone away, and car makers still have the final control over the integrated product.

What are some best practices for working with OSS?

Early adopters in the car industry say it's very important to participate in the OSS community. We're encouraging car makers to include any changes they make in the code. They should budget serious time to integrate OSS, do compatibility analysis and develop an internal road map that leverages open source for a higher rate of innovation. It should not be seen as free or low-cost; it has a lot of costs in terms of resources and planning.

Are there regional differences in OSS adoption?

Regional differences have emerged. If we take the GENIVI Alliance as an example, 75% of the membership is European. The OEMs involved include BMW, PSA Peugeot Citroën, Renault-Nissan, JLR, Volvo, Hyundai and Honda. U.S. OEMs are gradually getting involved, notably John Deere and GM.  In China, Android seems to have been more widely used as a platform for infotainment. Tier 1s and OEMs in China seem less concerned about basing their future on an OS under Google’s control. Studies have shown that cost savings are a more important motivation for open source adoption in North America than in Asia and Europe, while Asia is much more concerned about vendor lock-in.

How does one maximize OSS benefits when designing automotive solutions?

The early adopters in the automotive industry have reported that it is important to get involved in the community. This involves contributing code changes upstream and working with the community owners. It is a time-consuming activity, and it needs to be resourced and budgeted for.

The expectation that open-source software is free of any cost is false. Time needs to be budgeted for carrying out integration of OSS and non-OSS software. What if the licenses are incompatible? Conflicts need to be investigated, understood and resolved. How will OSS version changes be tracked and managed? What if new OSS features appear? How will they be included? Developing an internal roadmap that takes account of OSS innovation is important.

Does Android have a role to play?

Android absolutely has a role. It has become a sensationally popular operating system in the consumer market, and most car users want some way to have access to Android apps in their vehicles. However, there are several other ways to do this beyond having a native Android operating system. The Car Connectivity Consortium, for example, allows the smart phone to be tethered to the infotainment system, and the on-phone apps to be accessed remotely using car controls. Other solutions include guest operating systems based on Linux Containers, running a secure isolated Android instance or running several operating systems on the same silicon and allowing applications to switch between them. We're seeing very strong interest in this type of technology but nothing in production yet.

Do you see potential problems with Google's control of Android?

Some car makers are nervous about being dependent on an operating system managed by an independent commercial company. What if the licensing were to change? The Android release cadence is also outside the car makers' control. Proliferation of Android operating system versions is also a problem, with many in play at the moment. Android has successfully defended patent suits, but there's a question of whether there are more to follow. So far, Android has not set up an automotive-focused group for its operating systems. This lack of commitment is also making car industry decision makers nervous. But, that said, Mentor is not anti-Android. We carry out many projects and provide services to Android implementers.

Can you discuss the use of GNU Public License (GPL) terms to leverage OSS to incorporate proprietary software components to create sustainable competitive advantages?

Open-source software is covered by a range of licenses, but car makers have generally accepted GPL V2, which provides for a user to download and use all source code required to rebuild the application. The user also has the right to modify the software but must make this software and any changes available as open source and must abide by the original license terms. The right to modify and use is being debated through many different groups in the industry.

The challenge is to mix the types of licenses from vendors, such as ourselves, and silicon foundries together with open-source licenses. It's the responsibility of the car maker, the tier 1s and us to make sure licenses are compatible. Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the car seller to make sure it has the correct licenses and privileges.

(For more on open source, see Telematics and operating systems: The 'open' versus 'closed' debate, part I and Telematics and operating systems: The 'open' versus 'closed' debate, part II.)

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics Japan/China 2013 on Oct. 8-10 in Tokyo, Telematics Munich 2013 on Nov. 11-12 in Munich, Germany, Telematics for Fleet Management USA 2013 on Nov. 20-21 in Atlanta, Georgia, and Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013The Automotive HMI Report 2013Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.


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