There's a Linux-powered car in your future

Linux is well on its way to becoming the default automobile operating system.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Linux is everywhere. And, I mean everywhere. You name it, home electronics, smartphones, and, of course, computers. But, one place you probably didn't think of Linux living is sitting in your driveway right now: Your car.


If it's not already, your car will soon be running Linux.

The Automotive Grade Linux (AGL) group's membership is a who's who of car manufacturers. This includes: Mazda. Suzuki, Honda, Nissan, Ford, and the world's largest automobile company: Toyota. And, their numbers are only increasing.

At CES, AGL announced that Daimler, Mercedes-Benz's parent company, is joining the Linux revolution.. Daimler makes the tenth automaker to join AGL and the first Germany company to join the AGL.

You don't think of car manufacturers as software companies, but with rise of smartcars with their infotainment systems and self-driving functionality, that's exactly what they're becoming. "Automakers are becoming software companies, and just like in the tech industry, they are realizing that open source is the way forward," said Dan Cauchy, the AGL's executive director in a statement. "Daimler's expertise in developing intuitive, high-end technology will help us ensure that the AGL infotainment platform is user-friendly and can be customized to meet the diverse needs of drivers."

Until recently, many automakers used proprietary operating systems for infotainment. They'd then contract out the programming to an independent software vendor (ISV). The result? Proprietary code with limited portability and reuse.

AGL members have figured out that sharing a single, open-source software stack allows for code reuse and a more efficient development process. At the same time, ISVs can build once for multiple OEMs instead of having to waste time building different versions for each make and model.

The AGL is already well on its way to delivering state-of-the-art infotainment systems. The group recently released AGL Unified Code Base (UCB) 3.0.

UCB's goal is to provide 70 to 80 percent of a car's infotainment production system. This enables automakers and suppliers to focus their resources on customizing the other 20 to 30 percent to meet their unique customer needs. As part of UCB 3.0, AGL is also releasing a software development kit (SDK).

AGL UCB 3.0's new features include:

  • New home screen and window manager
  • Improved application framework and application launcher
  • Reference applications including media player, tuner, navigation, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, HVAC control, audio mixer and vehicle controls
  • Integration with simultaneous display on instrument cluster
  • Smart Device Link for mobile phone integration
  • Rear view camera and rear seat entertainment.
  • Wide range of hardware board support including Renesas, Qualcomm, Intel, Texas Instrument, NXP, and Raspberry Pi

Looking ahead, although initially focused on infotainment, AGL plans to support heads up display, telematics/connected car, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), functional safety, and autonomous driving.

The AGL isn't the only group working to integrate Linux and cars. The newly minted SmartDeviceLink (SDL) Consortium, which includes Ford, Toyota, Mazda, and Suzuki, is working on Linux-based open-source software for getting smartphones and cars to work together. The SDL already has other open-source competition: Android Auto.

At CES, Google and Fiat-Chrysler are showing off Android Automotive in a Chrysler 300 sedan. Android Auto is just a way to integrate smartphones and automobiles. Android Automotive, and its supporting organization, the Open Automotive Alliance, uses Android 7.0, as the foundation for smartcars. Its supporters include Accura, Audi, Cadillac, Ford, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, and a host of other car manufacturers.

Last, but never least when it comes to car innovation, there's Tesla.

Tesla uses a custom Ubuntu Linux build in its electric vehicles. Annoying enough, Tesla, which is usually good about open-source, hasn't released its cars' code, so it doesn't comply with the GPL. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO, recently announced that Tesla would start updating its Linux operating system in December 2016. There's still no word on when we'll see the code.

In short, there's considerable differences on how auto companies will use Linux in their cars. But almost all major car manufacturers agree that, one way or the other, they will be using Linux in their cars.

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