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Apr
27

Automotive Grade Linux

by Rory MacDonald

The Automotive Grade Linux workgroup aims to get more open source technology in vehicles

As a mascot, our humble Tux may seem somewhat out of place next to the testosterone-fuelled lions, griffins and rearing stallions of the automotive world. But as Linux continues its unstoppable drive into more and more areas of our daily lives, the giants of the car industry are rallying around the cuddly little penguin in ever increasing numbers.

“The [automotive] industry is looking to get away from the more proprietary systems and into open source technology. The consumer electronics and the mobile phone industry are setting the standard, and the automotive industry really needs to catch up,” claims Rudolf Streif, the Linux Foundation’s director of embedded solutions. Streif is also now chairing the steering committee of the foundation’s new Automotive Grade Linux workgroup.

Jaguar Toyota Range Rover
"We see AGL as the Debian or the Fedora of automotive"

The car industry’s collaboration around open source began in earnest with the formation of the Genivi Alliance, which was formally launched at CeBIT in 2009. Founded by BMW, General Motors, Peugeot Citroen and a series of major tier-one component manufacturers, Genivi sought to “bring open source to in-vehicle infotainment [IVI]”. Originally focused on building an open source reference platform, Genivi first chose the ill-fated MeeGo Linux project as the basis for its development. With Nokia’s exit and the collapse of MeeGo, Genivi continued with the development of Tizen IVI on top of the successor Tizen project, which is also hosted by the Linux Foundation.

Confusing then, when in late 2012, the Linux Foundation announced the launch of its new Automotive Grade Linux workgroup together with Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan and Toyota and a host of other consumer electronics and component manufacturers. So what is AGL and what is happening there?

“You have an industry that wants to catch up [in its use of open source]. Where can you go to download something and start playing with it? If you want to do something on a desktop, you have the many different Linux distributions. For mobile, you have Android, but for the automotive industry there is nothing out there,” says Streif.

“AGL is a cross-industry initiative for Linux and open source in automotive. One of the tangible outputs of AGL [is] reference distributions for in- vehicle applications as well as other applications such as intelligent transportation system (ITS) roadside instrumentation, and other areas,” he elaborates. “What I found through many, many talks with OEMs and tier-ones was that they needed a starting point… some kind of reference platform that they can put on reference hardware and get started. This is not what they are ultimately going to put into their final products. They will need to make a lot of adaptations to their specific hardware needs, their business needs, and they will customise the user interface to fit with their corporate identity. But they still need a starting point. That is what AGL is here to do.”

Asked about the current relationship between Genivi, Tizen and the new AGL project, Streif says: “To avoid reinventing the wheel, AGL chose Tizen IVI as the base integration platform for the AGL IVI distributions. For other applications AGL may choose different base platforms or even create the entire OS stack from scratch. But Tizen has a lot of good technology already on board. Intel and Samsung are doing great work integrating all these software packages into an operating system stack. So it already gets AGL to maybe 50-60 per cent of where it needs to be.

“For us in the steering committee, and the companies participating in AGL, there is no sense in spending resources, money, effort and time in replicating that first 50%. We need to focus on the value added components that then make Tizen and Tizen IVI very suitable, and a great starting point for the automotive industry,” he explains.

As for Genivi, Streif claims that the organisation is now more focused on standards, middleware and technical frameworks, rather than on creating working reference platforms.

“AGL and Genivi are complementary entities. We had a great meeting with them at CES [Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas in January]. Genivi is mainly about supply chain management and standardising a platform. The OEMs can now go out to the tier-one [component providers] and say ‘I want to have a Genivi-compliant platform’, which is, say, 80 per cent of the software stack. Then they say ‘I want this and this and that on top of it’, which is the differentiating factor for that particular OEM.

“That makes it that much easier for the OEMs, because right now they go out and get [software] components and it’s hard for them to compare [the different options] and to see if they are actually getting what they are asking for. So Genivi is really about standardisation, middleware standardisation, API specification, and supply chain management.”

While the Linux kernel is written into Genivi’s compliance specification, Streif says that this doesn’t mean it has to be Tizen: “It only says that certain [Linux] components are required, with specific versions and you need to expose certain APIs. It doesn’t tell you how to integrate it and what to use. This is where AGL comes in, because AGL is going to be Genivi compliant. It is providing a Genivi-compliant cutting-edge technology distribution for people to use and, eventually, to derive their product development from. We see AGL as the Debian or the Fedora of automotive – [they] are cutting-edge developer/ community distributions. They include the latest and greatest technologies. They are good, but it is not something you would put into production. If you want a production server you would go to Red Hat or Ubuntu. That is pretty much the model that we are following with AGL.”

With AGL positioning itself as the ‘community distro’ for the automotive industry, it begs the obvious question of who will be providing support. Will this be the car firms, the OEMs and component manufacturers, is there interest from existing providers of enterprise Linux distros, or is there a gap in the market for new organisations to move in there and take on that support role?

“I don’t see traditional organisations such as Red Hat, SUSE and Canonical getting into it [though Canonical is a Genivi affiliate member]. I think it’s an opportunity for system integrators and new companies to come in. There is an opportunity for them to come in there and provide system integration and support to the OEMs and their tier-ones.”

The other major role for AGL is in promoting the whole idea of Linux, open source collaboration and particularly the importance of contributing their developments back upstream into the Linux kernel. This is one area where the AGL project is working extensively with the Linux Foundation on workshops and mentoring programs in the automotive sector. “The whole industry is very conservative, and the whole paradigm of open source is completely new to the industry. Many of the senior management in these companies have been there for years, even decades. Often they are not software engineers, they are electrical and mechanical engineers, so it is a complete shift in paradigm and it does take time to transform the industry.”

No flow

One of the main drivers for both the car makers and larger, tier-one component manufacturers is the need for content. These firms have seen the massive external boost which Android and other mobile platforms have received from third-party apps and they want a piece of the pie. At the same time, the industry has a growing appreciation of the financial benefits of using open source software and, increasingly, collaborating on open standards and even distributions.

“The broad vision is this whole application or app ecosystem: I have my favourite apps on my smartphone, and my smartphone that integrates nicely with my car. The apps exchange data and have access to the same data. That is where everyone wants to get to,” says Streif.

“I think Tizen is actually taking the right approach, although it’s is heavily debated, using HTML5, CSS and JavaScript. This provides an application development platform that is simply based on the lessons that we have learned from the world wide web. We wouldn’t be in the situation where you can watch web content on any device that you want to enable (a smartphone, computer or even TV) if it weren’t for… all these [open] technologies which have been developed for the web.

“So I think that in mobile ecosystems (and this is my personal take on it), HTML5, JavaScript, CSS will, over time, push apps developed for the native platforms out of the way. It’s a very attractive proposition for the app developers, when they can target many, many devices with one application. What is also interesting is that this opens up the area of mobile development to a whole new breed of developers.

“So Tizen is definitely pushing things in the right direction, it’s the correct trend. Is AGL dependent on Tizen? No – since all the integration is also happening upstream [in the main Linux kernel], there are also other ways of doing things.”

But with the idea of in-vehicle apps, and even an open development environment, AGL IVI is not the only game in town. Ford has recently been making a lot of noise around its OpenXC project, which was started in partnership with open source hardware pioneer Bug Labs.

According to last year’s launch announcement, Ford’s vision for OpenXC is that the car becomes a docking station for Bug Labs’ interchangeable plug-and-play hardware and software modules. These are programmed with the customised connectivity features and services the driver wants. Drivers will be able to add and delete modules, allowing them to continually customise their experience and to add value to their vehicles as new technologies are introduced. Beyond the marketing hype, what OpenXC does is provide an API giving access to data from your car. This is then made accessible to Android app developers through the OpenXC library. So on the face of it, Ford are providing a similar ‘open’, in-car app environment as AGL IVI. We asked Streif if there is any collaboration between the projects.

“Ford!” There is a poignant, contemplative silence. “We haven’t been in direct contact with Ford in terms of AGL, there is no interaction there. We know that Ford has launched a couple of projects, such as the OpenXC project, which allows you to connect to the OBD bus, allowing applications on Android to utilise car data. Ford’s open source activities are popping up here and there. I don’t know what their official strategy is. From my point of view, their official platform strategy is still with Microsoft SYNC.”

Moving back to AGL, we wrap up by asking Streif about where AGL is headed. Within the modern car there is a black-box computer that controls many functions beyond ‘infotainment’. With broad high-level automotive industry involvement in Genivi and AGL, what is the scope for Linux to become the main control system for the car? And with the progress being made on the real-time kernel, is Linux creeping into engine management and the mechanics?

“What real-time does is that it gives you deterministic response times to certain events. In an engine control system you need that. If you have any piece of software with a closed control loop – where you get sensitive data, you need to process this data and then you need to react and control certain things based on the process output – that is where you need real-time. You need to be sure that this processing is done every single time, within a maximum period of time. Engine control systems are one of the classic examples; airbags are another… Will Linux ever go into an airbag? No, because it’s so very specific you don’t really need a general-purpose operating system for it. In an engine controller, maybe, because it has much more functionality.

“The other big area is the instrument cluster. These are becoming more and more tied together with IVI systems. The IVI systems are responsible for maps and navigation, but you want to have a map integrated into the instrument cluster so you don’t have to look to the side. And of course, instrument clusters are moving away from these electromechanical gauges and becoming a rectangular screen with all the gauges rendered on there.”

Are there areas where Linux will never make it in the car, even in the future?

“I see some areas, for very simple things, maybe for the seat controller, you wouldn’t use it because it will be too much overhead,” Streif responds. “I don’t think you would want that kind of overhead with an airbag control system or anti- lock brakes. But I do see opportunities for palm print systems and some security systems such as door locks, window controls, climate control, instrument clusters and eventually for engine control, environmental management and the catalytic converter.”

So AGL would seem to have a massive future. The project has formed its initial workgroups, the basic graft on documentation and education are underway, and decisions are being finalised about what goes into the first official release.

“We don’t have a flashy car yet with AGL in it, but we will be getting there soon,” Streif concedes. “Although there is actually one of the car companies participating in AGL [which] has said, ‘We can provide a car and you can put a technology demonstrator together’.”

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