Why the connected car rides on open source

The automobile is one of the most exciting frontiers in our connected lives today. Infotainment systems, real-time maps, and advanced driver assistance systems are already commonplace in newer vehicles, but it is still relatively early days for the fully connected car. The exhilarating vision of the driving experience of the near future includes augmented reality dashboards, progressively more autonomous operations, and increased integration with the outside world, from interacting with smart home devices to automatically finding parking spots nearby.

We’re headed towards a time when every car will become connected. IDC forecasts worldwide shipments of connected cars – vehicles that have internet access and onboard modems to communicate with external systems – to reach 76.3 million by 2023, a nearly 50% increase over 2019.

For the notion of a connected car to fully realize its potential, however, the many distributed players in this field – vehicle manufacturers, sensor providers, infotainment and app vendors, cloud providers, telcos, security vendors, and more – must join hands to collaborate in ways that haven’t always come naturally to the automotive industry.

Fragmentation is a dead end

Traditionally, technology initiatives in the automotive industry have tended to be highly fragmented, with car makers favoring proprietary technology and in-house development to retain as much competitive advantage as possible. But that approach is quickly becoming obsolete in the new connected car era. We now find ourselves in an environment that involves a far more complex set of software and hardware systems to interoperate in a proper manner that satisfies the stringent road safety requirements of today.

Fortunately, a viable way forward has started to emerge. What the new connected landscape needs is a heterogeneous ecosystem of several different parties – each an expert in their own niche – working together to advance common goals in connectivity. Such cross-industry coalitions foster a culture of cooperation and define common standards aimed at accelerating the development and adoption of new connected car technologies.

In recent years, we have seen some key coalitions form in the field to collaboratively advance the car of the future. These include the Linux Foundation’s ELISA (Enabling Linux In Safety Applications) project that brings together automotive OEMs and chip manufacturers to develop standards around open-source safety-critical systems, the connected vehicles initiative at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the Connected Car Working Group at the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA).

Open source becomes the engine

As a result, Linux – and open source software in general – has become the go-to platform for driving connected car innovation. This has allowed more experts to contribute to the advances and has enabled auto makers to harness the superior economics, faster software cycles, and more reliable codebases of open source.

For instance, Subaru experienced the power of open source for the connected car firsthand when it set out to produce an infotainment system that would surprise and impress customers accustomed to the brand’s utilitarian image.

Using an open-source software stack, Subaru was able to start development with a codebase that was already 70% to a production-ready project, avoiding the need to build everything from scratch, and significantly reduce the launch cycle for its new Starlink infotainment platform in 2020 Outback and Legacy models.

Then there’s data collection. Systems in connected cars collect vast amounts of data, which inform the driver about everything from when they should change the oil to the location of the nearest coffee shop. But this data also can be used to gather insights for improving driver safety and the driving experience and to formulate new products and services. When these datasets are openly shared as anonymized bundles of raw information, engineers from different companies are able to collaboratively solve problems relevant to the entire connected car ecosystem and help standardize solutions that benefit everybody.

There’s yet more for the argument in favor of collaboration and open source to grease the wheels of the connected car movement. It attracts contributions from the best and brightest developers from around the world, for whom using open source components in all their work has become as natural as power steering.

The road forward

So how can companies foster unified, open platforms for the connected car?

One way is to enthusiastically support and participate in cross-industry coalitions. This work is important because the standards that result from these groups provide the common ground for companies to build, certify, and deploy their solutions. Another benefit is that it gives government agencies the concrete processes and quantitative measure to fairly and efficiently regulate the technology.

They should encourage as many of their people as possible to contribute code to open-source initiatives such as the Autoware Foundation so that the quality can continually be improved. And automotive OEMs need to double down on sharing field data that helps data scientists understand and recommend the broader trends around which platforms should be defined.

A unified software platform for the connected car is surely within reach if the collegial spirit of open source catches on in the automobile industry.

Tom Canning is Vice-President for IoT and Devices at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu.

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