Telematics and operating systems: The ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate, part II

Deep inside the car, largely hidden from drivers’ eyes, a battle of operating systems rages. At stake is whether in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) remains a proprietary system controlled by a small number of companies or becomes an open ecosystem nurtured by an international developer community that contributes customizations and upgrades.

Consumers might not notice the difference between proprietary and open source. But it matters a great deal to OEMs, which are keen to reduce development costs by investing in lasting software stacks that don’t have to rebuilt from scratch every time they want to roll out a new car model. They can hardly be blamed: It costs between $50 million and $100 million and three years of development to get a new infotainment system into the vehicle, according to QNX.

In many ways, both Linux-based platforms and proprietary solutions by the likes of QNX or Microsoft can deliver. Still, there are important differences, the biggest one: Who owns the code and thus controls the development process.

Who controls the development process?

Other differences are smaller, but also significant. Linux is hard to beat on the speed with which it integrates support for new hardware, largely because manufactures can take part in the writing of drivers and kernel patches to ensure the smooth operation of their hardware, says Dan Cauchy, VP and general manager of the Automotive Business Unit at MontaVista, which specializes in embedded Linux commercialization.

According to Cauchy, this alone can shave six months off the development process for a high-end infotainment system, bringing its design cycle into the 12- to 24- month range. “You can’t say that about QNX and Microsoft, because they are proprietary,” he says. “The semiconductor guys cannot really help evolve that platform. They have to wait for them to make those updates.”

What’s more, if a specific functionality is not available in the current Linux release, you can easily go upstream and engage in projects that would supply it, something the user of a proprietary solution must negotiate with the owner of the code.

Comparing costs

However, this doesn’t mean that the cost of a single product will be lower via an open-source platform, says Roger Hampel, director automotive solutions at Symphony Teleca Corporation, a Palo Alto-headquartered software integrator dedicated to helping clients manage the global convergence of software, the cloud and connected devices.

There are significant amounts of money spent on optimizing the product and preparing it for commercial launch. For example, Android’s stock radio interface layer only allows for a basic GSM, GPRS modem, and every manufacturer who wants to build a UMTS phone needs to build its own interface layer or buy it, Hampel says.

But the development cost declines each time the developer reuses the open-source platform to mint a new product. “With an open platform, you are investing in a long-term [solution], and so your [return on investment] becomes really really good on the second and the third and the fourth project,” Cauchy notes. “You are able to do project number two, project number three on the same platform with very little modification, except maybe a new kernel for the new hardware and things like that.”

When is ‘open’ too open?

In May, MontaVista announced the release of an open-source automotive technology platform compliant with the new GENIVI Specification version 2.0, restating its commitment to release a major update of the platform within four to six weeks of GENIVI announcing a new set of specifications.

Andy Gryc, automotive product marketing manager for QNX, follows developments in the Linux space closely but has yet to feel the heat. For one thing, QNX’s reputation as a specialist in super-safe systems for industrial machines, mining applications and even nuclear power plants has great appeal to car manufacturers.

In fact, the use of open-source system architecture for automotive safety systems causes some concern in the industry, Lanctot says, given the risk of error or malicious manipulation. Proponents argue that the open nature of the review process for each piece of Linux software makes it much more likely that developers will spot errors.

The mandatory disclosure of Linux-based code, which resulted in the publication of several gigabytes of source code for Cadillac’s CUE, also causes some unease. “The industry has never seen this before,” Lanctot says. “So we’ll see how the industry accepts the idea of using open source software for key differentiating technologies, like the center stack in the car. I don’t know if that’s good, bad or indifferent. It’s just something new.”

Gryc also thinks GENIVI can’t move fast enough due to the size of its membership. Android is a far stronger contender due to its aggressive development road map and vast app store, though OEMs are discouraged by Google’s lack of official support for automotive.

HTML5: The best of both worlds?

According to Gryc, many of those looking into the possibility of using open source for IVI development are, in fact, looking to embrace standards that would guarantee they don’t get stuck with one hardware supplier. With QNX, they need not worry, he says. At the most recent count, QNX automotive solutions supported six different types of speech middleware, 13 types of multimedia technologies, and 14 silicon chip manufacturers.

When it comes to Android’s app store concept, QNX believes it has found a worthy substitute in HTML5, a non-proprietary standard that it argues can provide the same app experience with the added benefit of running on every mobile platform—BlackBerry, iPhone, Android or Windows Mobile. (For more on HTML5, see Customizing global telematics HMIs for local markets and Telematics and the next-generation Web.)

QNX demonstrated the viability of this approach at Telematics Detroit 2012 in June, when it showcased a Jeep Wrangler with an infotainment system based on QNX Car 2, its pre-integrated software stack for building IVI systems, and a user interface created entirely in HTML5.

OEMs used to need to rebuild these systems every time they wanted to match the brand identity of a new product line, according to Gryc. QNX Car 2 now allows them to change the user interface with a simple tap on the screen while keeping the underlying code intact. HTML5 can just as easily provide support for an app store or handle software updates, he says.

With strong advantages to both approaches to in-vehicle infotainment, they may well continue to coexist for some time and perhaps even combine into a variety of hybrid solutions that leverage the unique strengths of both. Now, that would be a win-win situation.

Read Telematics and operating systems: The ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ debate, part I.

Jan Stojaspalis a regular contributor to TU.

For exclusive business analysis and insight on HMIs, download TU’s Automotive HMI Report 2013.

For more on proprietary systems and open innovation, see Industry insight: Telematics and apps and Industry insight: Telematics and the human-machine interface.

For more on HMIs, visit Content & Apps for Automotive Europe 2013 on June 18-19 in Munich.

For all the latest telematics trends, check out Insurance Telematics Europe 2013 on May 7-8 in London, Data Business for Connected Vehicles Japan 2013 on May 15-16 in Tokyo, Telematics Detroit 2013 on June 5-6, Insurance Telematics USA 2013 on September 4-5 in Chicago, Telematics Russia2013 on September 9-10 in Moscow, Telematics LATAM 2013in September in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Telematics Japan 2013 on October 8-10 in Tokyo and Telematics Munich 2013 on November 11-12.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Report, Human Machine Interface Technologies and Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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