Friday, October 26, 2012

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

The panel
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 GM, Ford, Audi, Fiat, Nissan, and Toyota. Paul asked the participants to raise their hands if they would have any significant GENIVI products in production within the next five years.

The one punch
None of the panelists raised their hands. The answer caught me off guard so of course I immediately tweeted it (@truegryc). Though GM and Nissan are members of GENIVI, 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 them coming up as a competitor in automotive RFIs, RFQs, and RFPs less and less.

I have a few speculations as to why GENIVI hasn’t taken off as anticipated. 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 favourite 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 Sysems and our software isn’t open source, I definitely see value for open source in certain situations for automotive. 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 this; it can also be achieved through open standards, which is how we achieve it 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 free
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. There are a lot of open source libraries in today's head units. What comes to my mind is libjpeg, libpng, FreeType, SQLite, TinyXML, libxml, WebKit, zlib, wpa_supplicant, Skia, ppp, openssl, lighttpd, expat, dropbear, curl, bzip2, ... just to name a few.
    One thing is to use open source software with Apache, BSD, MIT licenses and not with strict licenses like GPL or LGPL.
    QNX is also taking advantage (with big success) from a lot of these libraries and software components, I think :-).

    1. But you are right with your estimation about GENIVI. But GENIVI is not the only way to use open source software in vehicles.

    2. Absolutely right! There are lots of opportunities to use open source libraries and utilities. You've provided an excellent list of a few natural candidates, and I'm sure there are more. I didn't make a clear distinction between building blocks (of which many OSS components make sense) and entire automotive frameworks. I think the latter are much harder to extract value from.

  2. Great report Andy. What makes me sad about it is how many resources are being wasted on initiatives like Genivi - and the car buyers indirectly have to pay it, although it never gets deployed. "Free" software isn't done by developers that don't get paid, right?