The Connected Car, Part 1: The Future Starts Now – Will Linux Drive It?

The Age of the Connected Car is dawning. The Linux Foundation is positioning an open source Linux OS to take the front seat in steering carmakers to adopting Automotive Grade Linux, or AGL, as the engine driving all in-car electronics.

Today’s automobile has from 60 to 100 sensors to control everything from climate to airbags and dozens of vehicle components. Carmakers expect that number to double as cars get smarter. The so-called “smartcar” will use these sensors to do much more than give the driver a hands-free option for changing lanes, breaking and parking.

Today’s new cars have options for Internet connectivity and can connect to applications for entertainment, vehicle service and maintenance. These connected cars can use apps on smartphones and tablets to provide driving services such as directions, traffic reports, motel and restaurant locators, and much more. They can do it independently of any hard-wired navigational or entertainment system the carmaker provides.

Connected cars are a very few years down the road — but the on-board operating systems that will run everything are being designed and tested today.

The Linux Foundation is in the lead with a fully functioning Linux distro designed to let drivers put the Internet pedal to the automotive metal. The first step is here now: an open source infotainment system. Around the next corner, AGL will handle all of the embedded systems and things like telematic services as well.

“As a platform, AGL is already there. We have some manufacturers already working with the platform today. I think we can expect to have a car with this stuff in it within the next year or so,” Dan Cauchy, general manager of automotive for the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

Crowded On-Ramp

Drivers are craving even more advanced systems in their cars. Manufacturers are interested in technologies like Broadcom’s Automotive Ethernet and the Linux Foundation’s AGL.

Several embedded Linux contenders, such as Wind River and MontaVista are generating quiet interest. So is Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay.

The Car Connectivity Consortium MirrorLink is developing global standards for phone-centric car connectivity solutions. The technology is already in use with some OEMs to control a nearby smartphone from the steering wheel or via dashboard buttons and screens. Similarly, QNX Software Systems has a foot or two in some vehicles with its QNX Car Platform for Infotainment.

“Ultimately, where the technology goes is up to the OEM. We see first entry at the high end of the vehicles for new safety sensors and connectivity,” said Grant Courville, director of product management at QNX Software Systems.

“We are starting to see them integrated into vehicles. We are also starting to see changes in safety features to include anti-collision sensors and navigational aids to improve driver awareness of his/her surroundings. It is moving from nice-to-have to demanded features from consumers,” he told LinuxInsider.

Embryonic Stage

“We view the connected car as another device in the Internet of Things. Cars are no longer isolated but are becoming part of the connected world. OEMs are now in a race to define and deploy an ecosystem,” said Jim Smith, vice president of marketing at Ixia.

This is not just bolting on new layers to an existing platform. It is a radical change. There are probably six to 10 auto networking stacks available now. These are competing technologies and standards, he told LinuxInsider.

Some of these competing platforms focus on specific types of connections, such as iPhones or Android products. However, the connected car will need an infrastructure and an ecosystem that serves more purposes than catering to a favorite consumer brand. The connected car must be device agnostic.

“OEMs are going to have to cooperate with supporting competing consumer products. No OEM can only support one type of consumer device. That is going to be the battle in the near term. You are going to see the OEMs dictating how that interoperability will work in their vehicles,” Smith said.

One for All

Consumers are going to want the functionality of their Android or iPhone or whatever platform they prefer. They will want this accessibility without fumbling around. They want to plug it in and have it handshake automatically with the car. It has to be safer, easier and more convenient, according to Smith.

Device choice is only one part of the problem that carmakers face in delivering the connected car. Interoperability is one function. Performance is another. So the early stages of actually connecting the connected car to devices and to the cloud is the battle to be won right now.

“All of these connections come from multiple providers and multiple device vendors. They are all present in the vehicle. That is the problem. All of these independent systems have to work together on a shared bus,” said Smith.

The Linux Solution

The Linux Foundation’s AGL is not the only Linux entry in the race to win the connected car course. Other Linux-based car systems have tried to gain the driver’s seat with carmakers. These include embedded Linux solutions that already control automotive subsystems. Android, as a form of Linux, is in this Linux mix.

AGL is different in that the Linux Foundation is pushing it as the core automotive system for developers rather than presenting a production-ready system like other contenders. AGL is a platform that will enable software vendors to write apps that will run across all compliant AGL implementations.

Automotive Grade Linux is the first fully open source automotive software platform. It is based on the Tizen In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) project. Tizen is found in some smartphones. It also is used as the OS in TVs and some cars.

“It is device-agnostic. We do not decide what will connect and what will not,” said the Linux Foundation’s Cauchy.

Complete Package

AGL is a modified Linux distribution built for cars. Carmakers and device vendors can use it as a platform to build custom software for their vehicles and handheld devices.

“We already have a very good referenced starting point. As open source, things are always R&D. Our goal is to always improve the platform. Features will be ongoing. That is never going to stop,” said Cauchy.

The Linux Foundation’s charter to develop AGL covers everything in the car, he said. Infotainment is the part developed, because that is what the auto manufacturers wanted done first.

“It is up to the car makers to take this as a starting point and turn it into a product. They will add their own look and feel, and modify so it looks like they want,” Cauchy said.

Familiar Display

AGL already has the necessary working parts in place. For instance, There is a dashboard display with a fully functional user interface. It is a touchscreen that is very similar to that of an iPhone or Android phone.

That user interface did not result from design laziness. Rather, it was meant to feed user familiarity. In fact, unlike typical rectangular screens used with automobile navigational displays, the AGL screen has a vertical alignment much like the display on a cellphone.

“A number of automakers requested that vertical design as a matter of familiarity for users,” said Cauchy.

What’s Inside

The AGL infotainment functionality already has a lot of user applications. It has a home screen and Google Maps, HV/AC controls, media playback and a newsreader. Add to that list of features audio controls and Bluetooth connect settings.

“We also have a smartphone connect, which is a link to your phone over Bluetooth. The entire UI is written in HTML5 and Java Script. It is very cutting edge — much more cutting edge than Android, to be honest. HTML5 is where it is at. That is the future,” noted Cauchy.

Automotive Grade Linux is not a dumbed-down operating system. It is a complete Linux distro in its own right.

True to Its Core

There was no need to tinker with AGL. No modifications to the Linux kernel were needed. AGL runs on quite similar hardware in terms of processors and RAM, according to Cauchy. In terms of peripherals, it is very similar as well. There are peripheral connectors and a PCI bus.

“Very little customization has to be done to adopt the Linux OS to auto environments. We can leverage what has already been done to adapt Linux for mobile devices and consumer devices like TVs and such. Linux just works,” Cauchy said.

In fact, the only major difference for automobile use is a specific bus for access to car-specific things and diagnostics. The only thing required is for OEMs to have the license for access to those systems. The Linux Foundation does not do that for them — but that is easily integrated, Cauchy explained.

Long Road Trip Ahead

Getting the connected car to where it needs to be is not going to be easy or quick, but the process of getting there has begun nonetheless.

“The development will take time. A lot of standardization and inter-industry cooperation has to continue. Everybody wants to make this happen. A number of pieces of the puzzle have to come together. That includes everything from industries to suppliers to research institutions to vehicle-to-vehicle functionality. Looking beyond all of that, once you start to combine these technologies, it starts to point you in a direction. What we are doing now is all of the stepping stones and building blocks for that to happen,” said QNX’s Courville.

The process is going to combine what is in the vehicle with what is integrating into the vehicle and what is connecting to and from the vehicle. Doing that will not take one dominant player that will own the standards, he said.

“I have seen grass roots movements as well as standards bodies that are trying to make this happen. There does not seem to be one company trying to dominate it all. You have companies that are innovating like crazy. The ultimate goal is introducing technologies and intelligence to make the vehicle safer,” Courville maintained.

It really does seem to be a cooperative effort, in his view.

The Connected Car, Part 2: Wired For Wireless – It’s All Business

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him onGoogle+.

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