Linux goes on the road

Open Source has been establishing itself as a de facto operating system for in-vehicle applications. Now vendor Wind River's nascent Linux-based 'infotainment' standard could provide a unifying platform for further growth.

The Open Source ideal continues to grow core support at the heart of the applications mainstream, and recently it has been widening the inroads it's been making into the automotive sector. The in-vehicle operating system platform space has been dominated by Microsoft Auto OS, QNX's RTOS, and other proprietary solutions. Now it is being challenged by Linux-based initiatives that could bring to the car and truck the same flexibility enjoyed by home and office.

Over the last three years, Linux has been stealthily establishing itself as a de facto operating system for a clutch of in-vehicle applications, most notably so-called infotainment systems that support and link audio, telemetric, and telephony functionality.

"Up to a few years ago, Linux-based systems were limited in what they could deliver," explains Gérard Maniez, global accounts manager automotive at Freescale Semiconductor. "But I now see increasing confidence in Open Source's ability to handle value-added car systems."

Freescale Semiconductor addresses this market from the embedded systems direction: its Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) is a real-time operating system based on the Linux 2.6 kernel offering a Linux software solution. In April 2008 Freescale introduced its MPC5123 dual-core processor for embedded Linux applications that comes bundled with a developers starter kit.

Open Source software's reputation is accelerating, says Maniez, but it is still a long way off being accredited highly enough to handle the safety and control IT that manages the engine and driving systems. "There's still a firewall there," Maniez observes. "It will be years before Linux gets through that. I don't see it making any impact in the foreseeable future."

Another reason putting the brakes on Linux's prospects here is the fact that vehicle control IT evolves at a very slow pace, whereas Linux exists in a continual state of fluidity - fine for rapidly-deploying technologies like infotainment.

Device software optimisation solutions firm Wind River Systems has announced a collaboration with Intel to create an open Linux platform for the automotive industry's in-vehicle infotainment market optimised for Intel's Atom processor. Part of Wind River's strategy is to make available (by August 2008) open specification and code from the platform to the Open Source community via a new in-vehicle infotainment segment within Moblin.org, a community website for vendors and Linux users to work together.

The code, combined with the Atom processor, Wind River asserts, will enable the development of 'Open Infotainment Platforms' based on inter-operable, standards-based hardware and software components. Such platforms should allow manufacturers to scale software across devices, leading to cost and development efficiencies.

Wind River is steering toward a market where automotive manufacturers will be able to modify their value propositions where infotainment systems choice is a string factor in purchasing decisions - and that includes all kind of vehicles.

Then Wind River's Linux Platform for Infotainment will offer pre-integration with third-party networking and multimedia applications. Applications so far signed-up include speech-recognition and speech-to-text technologies by Nuance Communications, Bluetooth and advanced echo-cancellation and noise reduction solutions by Parrot, music management and automatic playlisting technologies by Gracenote (just bought by Sony), multimedia networking solutions by SMSC, and DVD playback by Corel's LinDVD.

"Linux offers three compelling pluses for in-vehicle infotainment," says Wind River's vice president, EMEA sales, Andreas Pabinger. "First, speed of development. It means applications can be developed and brought to market much faster. Second, the recruitment factor: the high availability of software engineers who understand Open Source, as compared to other operating systems; and third, an association with the automotive sector will, I think, attract the best brains from the Open Source community who think that is a desirable place to work."

"Vehicle manufacturers need to focus on vehicle ICT as a means of differentiating their brands and enabling ongoing innovation," says Thilo Koslowski, research vice-president at analyst Gartner. However, he adds: "The automobile industry places a significant premium on reliability in all systems, so [Linux advocates] will need to make a compelling case for reliability and security."

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