Road-Tripping With Linux

Multimedia infotainment devices are a hot seller in today’s automotive market and can be the deciding factor in which vehicle a customer ultimately chooses. The automotive infotainment market has successfully navigated the initial wave of consumer devices invading the automobile, offering basic connectivity for consumer electronics (CE) in the passenger cabin.

Consumers seek continued improvement in the convergence between their beloved consumer electronics, such as iPods and cell phones, and their vehicles. This convergence creates the need for a multimedia platform that can specifically address:

  • Emerging multimedia requirements to meet both automotive and CE industry standards at an accelerated innovation rate
  • Standardization that encourages software reuse and extends the life of the multimedia platform
  • Lower cost competition exerting pressure on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to boost the contributed value to integrated solutions at optimized profit margins

In tough economic times, automotive OEMs are challenged to quickly and cost-effectively create and deploy platforms that will serve their customers’ needs now and into the future.

The Pace of Innovation

Most CE devices have a development cycle that is measured in months, and a product lifespan of one to three years before replacement. By contrast, most new auto models take three years or more to design and can be on the road for at least 10 to 15 years. New CE products are introduced to offer support for new multimedia standards, which make older CE models obsolete. They also challenge auto OEMs to quickly support these new or emerging standards both in vehicles that are about to hit the market (and have already been designed and tested) as well as in vehicles that are already on the road.

With the huge disparity in development and product lifecycles between consumer devices and automobiles, the challenges will not be easily overcome without significant changes to the in-vehicle device innovation cycle.

One change that automotive OEMs and tier suppliers have recently begun implementing is the use of open source software (OSS) to support in-vehicle multimedia applications. OSS, including Linux and commercial software based on Linux, offer automotive OEMs and suppliers a wide range of technologies, toolkits, media players and plug-ins to speed the development of in-vehicle multimedia applications.

Linux has a heritage in the desktop market and its large community of software developers offers multiple options to support in-vehicle multimedia applications including:

  • Popular, industry-standard media formats and file types
  • A variety of ready-to-use audio and video codecs and players
  • Solutions for speech recognition, control and output

Robust multimedia frameworks such as Helix, gstreamer and Adobe’s Flash Lite provide Linux-based foundations for multimedia applications. Open source media players such as Helix and Real offer engines for audio and video playback for automotive use. These also support the most popular multimedia types including AAC, AC3 and MP3 for audio, and mpeg4 and WMV for video (though some proprietary codecs must still be licensed with the owners).

Moreover, these multimedia components support internet standards to deliver such Web services as location based services to the infotainment platforms of the future. With these readily available solutions, OEMs and tier suppliers can speed the rate of platform innovation, allowing them to focus on developing applications and features that truly are innovative.

The Need for Standardization

Automotive OEMs require a multimedia platform that is robust and stable for integration into the vehicle. In the past, such platforms had been proprietary to the supplier and lacked the extensibility and flexibility that an open platform offers. A robust multimedia platform that is possible with Linux-based systems can make extensive use of application programming interfaces (APIs).

This architectural concept exposes a program for an easy and common way to integrate other programs without having to create unique and costly point-to-point interfaces. A platform supporting open application programming interfaces enables the quick integration of additional components and applications, and gives the OEM wider choices in suppliers for components.

An open standards-based approach can help promote software reuse as software components are easily plugged in to new applications. Software reuse also accelerates the rate of innovation and reduces development costs since code does not need to be reinvented. A high software reuse rate can promote higher quality while reducing the test and verification requirements, which speeds the development cycle and removes costs from the process.

Common automotive connectivity standards such as CAN and MOST have both commercial and open source solutions that are Linux-based so OEMs can offer rich multimedia experiences without having to reinvent their underlying components. These standards are robust and proven, and are commonly used to integrate applications and devices with the rest of the vehicle. With open systems support, these can help protect the investment OEMs have in the other side of the device connectivity.

A standards-based platform can also support new ways of maintaining the vehicle to help keep the multimedia experience contemporary as the vehicle ages. With a robust infrastructure and support for open standards, new multimedia codecs could be downloaded into the vehicle while it is in the service bay. This could create new revenue opportunities while continuing to satisfy the vehicle owner.

Cost Savings

Consumers enjoy a wide range of options for bringing multimedia entertainment into their car. At the low end of the spectrum, simple aftermarket connectors can link an iPod to a cassette deck (if the vehicle still has one) for basic playback, while headsets allow hands-free driving for cell phone calls. However, consumers seek a more mature driving experience, including:

  • MP3 player integration with the vehicle’s premium sound system with the capability to mute or pause the MP3 player when a call comes to a cell phone
  • Using the navigation system for directions without disrupting the rear seat movie
  • Controlling the MP3 player from the steering column for safety and convenience

Open source and commercial software based on Linux offer solutions for deeper multimedia integration with the vehicle that can help reduce the cost of platform development. Both commercial (Parrot, Sybase and others) and open source (bluez) Bluetooth stacks are already available on Linux to wirelessly integrate CE devices and mobile handsets with the vehicle. Open source and Linux-based commercial USB drivers are also readily available, reducing the cost of component integration.

Broad support for multimedia requirements gives open source software, especially Linux, substantial advantages to automotive OEMs seeking to accelerate the rate of innovation, reduce costs and increase infotainment device longevity. With a broad spectrum of commercial and non-commercial solutions available, OEMs and their suppliers are eager to work open source components into their next generation multimedia platforms. These opportunities are only beginning to be explored, while the full realization of open source benefits lie ahead.


Paul Tu is Linux Product Line Manager, Automotive, for Wind River Systems.


1 Comment

  • This whole article felt like an introduction to an in-depth story, but that did not follow. And it could have been so easy: BMW are promoting open source in ICE systems, and actually offer Internet in their cars, Otherr car manufactureres offer 7" monitors in the car, Ubuntu 8.10 has a mobile version, Intel’s Atom CPU and boards are so lightweight on power that you do not have to keep the engine running to use them, mobile phones act as GPS/flat-rate Internet modems for carPCs, 7" and larger touch screens come down in price. I’m actually building a carPC right now: Atom board, 16 GB USB stick memory, 9" touchscreen, bluetooth keyboard/mouse combo, CAN bus connection, GPS/Internet via mobile phone.

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