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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Can I Get A Roadmap? Amen!

I attended SAE Convergence in Detroit last week, and I've got a couple observations that I'll be blogging about. Here’s the first.

The Panel
The second day of the show, there was a very informative OEM panel.  The moderator, Paul Hansen, asked the automakers what their suppliers could do to help them build their infotainment systems. Alan Amici from Fiat said, "I would like suppliers to share their roadmaps," to which the other OEMs nodded in agreement. On the surface, this seems like a rather gentle, generic request. However, I think it's actually quite a powerful insight that signals a fundamental change in our industry. Mr Amici took a cue from our former president Theodore Roosevelt, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Let me elaborate.

The History
Stepping in our way-back machine to three years ago or earlier, you'd find a persistent pattern.  Every OEM would fully spec every software feature of every module. Which meant that every Tier 1 and software supplier (including QNX) would have to jump through hoops trying to cut, fold and tear their existing software to meet those custom specs. And it also meant building tons of new software on top to fill the gaps. The reasoning here is pretty simple—an automaker is building a custom system, so why not build something that reflects exactly what they want? In this environment, we always presented our software roadmap and the OEMs would look politely, but it rarely influenced their designs. Instead, we ended up providing a completely bespoke version of our software stack.

The Change
About two years ago, we started to notice a powerful undercurrent in automotive that bucks this trend. Why the change? OEMs absolutely need to create consumer relevant products, and reduce the time required to release them. That means they will need to—more and more—reuse instead of re-invent. Several OEMs at the forefront of this trend have been already exploring this.  How? By working directly with the Tier 1 and suppliers to design the system with a eye towards heavy reuse of existing technologies, instead of trying to design each system from the ground up.

The Apps
This effort to reuse instead of recreate will be necessary not just to reduce the time of delivery, but also to enable any type of cross-brand app experience. Apps that live in app stores require a consistent set of APIs. It’s very hard to do that if every single OEM is busy customizing and recreating every aspect of the system software. The “we’ll design our own” approach will result in fragmentation even worse than that experienced by the Android community. Unconstrained, it carries the threat of creating dozens of independent silos, with no ability to share apps between car makers. It means dilution of the already small automotive volume into even tinier markets—one for each automaker—which doesn’t bode well for anyone building automotive apps. OEMs will need to buck the desire to customize everything if they want to build a thriving app community.

The Punchline
When automakers are focused on their value-add, like HMI designs and custom features, instead of reinventing plumbing, it helps everyone. The OEMs, the Tier 1’s, and the software suppliers benefit from using a consistent platform amongst themselves.  So Mr/Ms Carmaker: would you like to see our roadmaps? We would absolutely love to share them.  We’d even like to help build them with you!