Thursday, November 1, 2012

Open source software in auto: a time that’s come (and gone)?

As mentioned in my previous post, Paul Hansen of the Hansen Report held an OEM panel at SAE Convergence. The panel was international in scope, with North America, Europe, and Japan equally represented through Ford, GM, Audi, Fiat, Nissan, and Toyota. Paul asked the participants to raise their hands if they would have any significant products based on the GENIVI open-source platform in production within the next five years.

The one punch
None of the panelists raised a hand. The answer caught me off guard so of course I immediately tweeted it (@truegryc). Though GM and Nissan are members of the GENIVI Alliance, they don’t have any GENIVI project with enough volume worth talking about. The other panelists aren’t planning to use GENIVI, either. (If BMW was on the panel, the total hands may not have been zero, but their singular stance would still be telling.)

The two punch
A similar question, about how OEMs could best utilize open source software, created an uncomfortably pregnant pause, with panelist members furtively looking at each other. Eventually, Ricky Hudi from Audi decided to tackle the issue directly. I’m paraphrasing his answer, but he said that open source software has not paid off as much as anticipated and that the risks of using it within automotive are still underappreciated.

Why not?
The sheer number of GENIVI members lends an impression of vitality. Despite that, we’ve seen GENIVI coming up as a competitor in automotive RFIs, RFQs, and RFPs less and less.

I have a few speculations as to why this is so. No OEM wants to spend tons of time and engineering effort to build something that helps every one of their competitors, and I don’t believe IP rights were clearly delineated from the beginning. As a committee-run organization, GENIVI seems to have responded sluggishly to new technologies; it also seems to have a conspicuously absent HMI strategy. And I think that people have figured out by now that building a production infotainment system is a hell of a lot harder than simply bolting a media player on top of your favorite OS.

Building communities
Does the lukewarm OEM response signal a rough road ahead for automotive open source software in general? Or for other up-and-coming replacements like Automotive Grade Linux? For the record, although I work for QNX Software Systems and our software isn’t open source, I definitely see value for open source in certain automotive situations. Open source provides a lot of value in broad efforts like building developer communities and fleshing out ecosystems. But open source isn’t the only way to accomplish these goals; they can also be achieved through open standards like HTML5, which is our approach at QNX. In fact, shortly after Mr. Hansen’s OEM panel, QNX’s Andrew Poliak held a Convergence session that focused on this exact point.

"Free" isn’t
Car companies often pursue open source with a single-minded goal of “getting software for free”. But within automotive, at least, using open source is not free. There are a lot of costs in producing software; licensing is just the part that impacts the Bill Of Materials. Non-recurring engineering costs, training, expertise creation, expertise retention, support, and licensing compliance add up: these items can easily overwhelm runtime license costs. Unfortunately, some companies have learned this lesson the hard way.


  1. I can add also that Open Source conception is just hidden very expensive variant of proprietary solution especially for Automotive. At the end of the day (when hopfully product is shipped) company will see that the final R&D and support cost of free software is very high because of many reasons. So actually when we try to apply term of Open Source as approach differentiator we really saying about the comparison of proprietary solutions always.
    In case of QNX solution the difference is that QNX solution for automotive is good manageable and predictable vs. Open Source.

    1. I agree. I would say based on my experience that companies who have substantial Linux investments do not see a substantial differentiation as a result. Tier1's can be investing a lot of money just to keep their technology at parity (or even less) with the rest of their competitors, instead of using that money to improve the solution they provide. If you count the engineering costs of maintaining your own OS variant against the "free" runtime licensing, it often doesn't make sense.

  2. Equating GENIVI-compliant Linux as the ONLY way to build open source IVI stacks is completely misleading. Companies are using both Android and other custom-Linux stacks to build IVI systems as well.

    1. Yes, of course you can use open source other than GENIVI. However, GENIVI is the only automotive-specific open source solution. Neither generic Linux nor Android are built for the car; they require some sometimes substantial modifications to make them auto-appropriate. Not to mention that Google's licensing model for Android makes it pretty much a non-starter for most automotive companies.

  3. Sergey and Anonymous: Apologies for the delay in posting your comments. Was off sick and forgot to delegate comment posting -- Paul L.

  4. QNX is very expensive and every component need charge development fee and license. Which OS and ecosystem is used depend on the cost. Maybe custom-Linux is not good choice for automotive; but if Google could modify android for automotive industry,
    android will be good choice.

    1. Yes, QNX has a runtime license, and Linux does not. However, QNX is a very low cost solution if you are looking at the total cost of the deployment and development. I suspect that most open source proponents would be surprised that very frequently QNX provides a lower total cost to the car maker than Linux. One objective proof of this: if our systems were considered "very expensive" by all the car makers, we would not be enjoying a majority position in infotainment, because they would try to eliminate the cost of QNX. They don't however, because they recognize that the engineering cost of recreating everything that we have already built for the car can be prohibitively high. If Google modified Android for automotive, I agree that it would certainly provide an interesting solution. Thus far, they have not shown any interest in participating in such a low-volume and high-customization market as automotive.