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Can 'open source' solve car-tech problems?

A battle is brewing between traditional car software and a more collaborative approach.

By Douglas Newcomb Oct 15, 2012 12:01PM

Automotive Linux Group. Image by Linux Foundation.Horsepower used to be the measuring stick among new cars, but now, increasingly, it’s fuel efficiency. Even safety and styling, which have long been important selling points, are not as powerful among buyers as they once were.

If you consider modern society’s infatuations with 24/7 connectivity -- or just watch car ads on TV -- it’s clear that technology is one of the most significant factors affecting car-buying decisions today. And although the latest slick touch-screen infotainment systems get all the attention, one of the most important components of a car is something consumers rarely see or think about: software.

With infotainment software changing how automobiles are designed and marketed, today's cars have become full-fledged computers with wheels. Not all software is equal, however, and lines are being drawn in a new battle of automotive operating systems.

The schism in this skirmish is between tried-and-true, traditional proprietary software systems that are less flexible and the emergence of “open source,” an unproven approach that could foster more rapid innovation. Until now, automakers have worked with a few select vendors such as Microsoft (which owns MSN) and QNX to develop software for specific vehicle lines.

But recently, open-source software has made a move. The Genivi Alliance was founded three years ago as a nonprofit industry group “committed to driving the broad adoption” of an open-source development platform for infotainment. Members include BMW, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Volvo and automotive suppliers Bosch, Harman and Continental.

In September, the personification of open source, the Linux Foundation, announced the formation of the Automotive Grade Linux Workgroup (AGL) to “facilitate widespread industry collaboration that advances automotive device development, providing a community reference platform that companies can use for creating products,” according to a statement from the group. AGL automaker members include Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and Toyota along with suppliers such as Denso, Fujitsu, Harman, Intel and Nvidia.

So why should average consumers care about software while they drive? One of the chief benefits of an open-source approach is that it opens the dashboard to innovation by outside developers -- the same way that the explosion of third-party applications has made smartphones more practical and popular. AGL’s stated goal is “to meet consumer expectations for the same connectivity in cars as what is today the norm in homes and offices.”

An open-source approach could also help cars better keep pace with technology -- before and after they hit the road. The multiyear production cycle of a new vehicle means that at some point in the process, the onboard technology gets frozen in time. As it stands, only a few automotive infotainment systems can be flashed with a software update, which is a primary reason why Cadillac used Linux to power its Cue system in the new XTS.

On the other side of the battle front, more automakers have begun to allow car owners to update the software of existing infotainment systems, most notably Ford with Sync. Software on the Tesla Model S and Mercedes-Benz mbrace2 system updates "over the air," with no effort required by the owner.

BMW, Ford and GM are also working with third-party developers. QNX has been a proponent of HTML5 technology, which could allow third-party apps to be integrated more easily into infotainment systems.

While there’s no doubt that car buyers are demanding more connectivity features, there is some question about how secure these systems will be from attacks by hackers -- no matter the operating system. Some companies are starting to pay attention to the problem, but maybe that’s where more resources should be focused.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.


Oct 16, 2012 10:57AM
"And although the latest slick touch-screen infotainment systems get all the attention, one of the most important components of a car is something consumers rarely see or think about: software."

Ironically, complexity and inefficiency of the embedded software in a car is one of the first things I think about when evaluating any given vehicle. That is why I have been shunning all this complexity in contemporary vehicles.
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