The In-Vehicle-Infotainment (IVI) System is the most complex electronic system in the car. It collects data from all of the car’s sensors and integrates functions as diverse as navigation, climate control, media playback, cellphone connectivity and more.
Yet automakers have focused on IVI as their first target for open source software collaboration. Both the Automotive Grade Linux  working group and GENIVI alliance are pioneering collaborative efforts to develop a Linux-based open source platform for IVI software development.
Wouldn’t it be easier to overhaul the software behind a single task such as engine control or the door locks, before tackling the IVI behemoth? Well, yes, say representatives from both initiatives. But the potential cost savings and efficiency gains with an IVI overhaul are big incentives for automakers.
The number of lines of software code in the IVI system has exploded in recent years. As a result, “the cost (of manufacturing) has been shifting to the software, away from hardware,” said Roger Lanctot, associate director of the global automotive practice at the Strategy Analytics consulting firm.
A simultaneous increase in consumer demand to accommodate mobile devices has put “tremendous pressure” on automakers to keep up with the mobile market’s faster product cycle, he said.
And so some of the world’s largest automakers, including General Motors, Jaguar Land-Rover, BMW Nissan and Toyota, are turning to open source software, and more specifically to the Linux operating system, in order to meet these challenges.
“There is much effort going towards Linux development at the moment and it’s advancing rapidly,” said Matt Jones, a Senior Technical Specialist in Infotainment at Jaguar Land Rover and Vice President of GENIVI. “Over the next 5 years (automakers) will be increasing the functionality of the Linux IVI offerings, and some are even rolling it out across all of their car lines.”
Here are five reasons open source software development makes sense for the IVI system.
1. Rapid evolution
At present, each component of the IVI system is based on a different operating system with its own proprietary software on top. This means anytime the system is updated, developers must start from scratch.
An IVI system based on Linux allows software developers to leverage the work that has already been done with the operating system in other areas, such as incorporating multimedia functionality from Linux video and media players, said Rudolf Streif, Director of Embedded Solutions with the Linux Foundation and AGL.
“Anytime anyone builds something with Linux right now they’re building on years of experience in the server, desktop and mobile markets; building on what came before. That’s the difference,” Jones said. “They’re adding functionality all the time, not using effort to recreate existing services.”
2. Cost savings and new revenue opportunities
In addition to the potential cost savings from eliminating redundant code development, automakers have new revenue opportunities from a faster development cycle.
“After a year or two a car’s infotainment system is outdated. Customers would love to update it to keep up with technology, but currently that’s not really feasible,” Streif said.
At a faster development pace, instead of waiting out the typical 4- to 5-year product cycle, customers could expect technology updates closer to the mobile product cycle of roughly 6 months, Lanctot said. And, crucially, they would pay more for the convenience.
3. IVI is new technology
Engines have been around for more than 100 years and the control functions have been finely tuned to the point that they work very well already, Streif said. Mobile phones and Internet connectivity, however, are relatively new and the industry has much less certainty about how they should operate – making them a good target for innovation. Open source components will throw the gates wide open for application developers to contribute their own solutions, speeding innovation and time to market.
4. Consumers demand change
Consumers want their cars to function like their mobile devices: always connected, easy to use by touch or voice command, and constantly changing as technology advances. And they don’t have the same expectations of rapid advancement in other components of the car.
As Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin summarized in a Wired op/ed last October, “As automakers get into the computing business, the biggest hurdle they have to overcome isn’t each other – it’s consumer expectations driven by the rise of ubiquitous mobile computing,”
The problem is that carmakers aren’t in a position to decide which mobile devices will be supported in 5 years, Lanctot said. Using an open source-based IVI system will allow rapid development as well as incorporation of new technologies developed elsewhere and for sometimes very different purposes.
5. IVI isn’t “safety critical”
Tinkering with the IVI software is less likely to cause a crash than, say, the engine control software. There are many hypothetical scenarios that risk analysts would love to scare us with. Hacking the IVI software could provide a gateway to more critical systems, for example. “But you could do this today with a Bluetooth port,” Jones said.
“If somebody wants to hack an IVI system they will,” Jones said. “It doesn't matter if it's open source or closed. It’s really hard to do, but it can be done.”
He argues that if anything, open source peer review can reduce this slim possibility even further. The auto industry takes customer safety and privacy very seriously. Importantly, this must be balanced against the risk that avoiding open source entirely will stifle innovation.
Open source software development and Linux integration will expand in the automotive industry beyond the IVI system in coming years, with the next likely focus resting on the dashboard.
For more, see our Q&A with Prashant Desphande , an Associate Vice President and head of the Automotive Instrument Cluster at KPIT Cummins in India, on his efforts to build Linux-powered instrument panels. Deshpande will speak on Monday, May 27 at the Automotive Linux Summit  in Tokyo.