Safety First: The Auto Industry Looks to Open Source to Uncover New Sources of Revenue

Xen hypervisor

When it comes to automotive software, there are three key things to think about: safety, safety and safety.

Open source moves into most industries in the same way. First, it is seen as unimportant, then too risky, and suddenly, it becomes essential.

Just think about some of the fundamental building blocks of the connected economy – Linux, HTTP, SSL, Apache Web Servers and so much more. Each of these major open source platforms were combined and refined by many companies to provide a business platform, leading to billions upon billions of dollars in growth. Banking, Commerce, Media, Agriculture, Energy and other massive industry sectors are wholly dependent on the widespread use of open source software to function.

Of course, each industry is different and faces its own set of unique challenges and requirements. In particular, the automotive industry is rightfully cautious about all software, not just open source. However, the industry has come to trust proven platforms that have shown results over time, rather than novel capabilities.

Xen Hypervisor

So, it is no surprise that the open source Xen Hypervisor is quickly moving to the forefront of open source technology for automotive. With a history that stretches back to the late 1990s, Xen is one of the oldest “new” technologies around. Starting as a research project at Cambridge University, Xen was first made open source in 2002 and then became deeply integrated into major Linux distributions in 2011.

When it comes to automotive software, there are three key things to think about: safety, safety and safety. Stability and maturity matter in automotive software. This is where the combination of Xen maturity, 14 years and counting, running in major data centers around the globe, and open source software development have come together to ensure a stable base for new innovations in connected vehicles.

Then there is the basic architecture of the open source Xen Hypervisor. No one wants anything interfering with mission-critical functions. If businesses don’t want to allow software to communicate with hardware, then take out the hardware drivers as driver disaggregation is a basic concept of Xen.

Additionally, there’s the matter of ensuring that the code itself is manageable and does not consume too many system resources. Computers in vehicles are not particularly powerful and their local storage capacity is limited, which can be challenging. However, refining the open source code to the “essentials” is not only possible, it is a best practice. Consider that Xen is about 90K lines of code. It’s small enough to manage and consumes very little computing power, which is a huge benefit for any embedded engineering project with constrained resources.

Open Source in Automotive

Another reason automotive companies often overlook open source is because organizations believe that there’s no economic value to participating in its development and distribution. The hundreds of billions of dollars made each year by hundreds of companies (including Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon, RedHat and thousands of others) prove otherwise. There are a myriad of benefits – cost reduction, speed of deployment and simplification of change management – that come with utilizing open source software, and the industry could accelerate business value by leveraging these tools.

2018 is shaping up to be an important year for open source in automotive, but there are still a few major concerns that need to be resolved. Out of all the challenges that the industry faces, the primary concern involves third-party safety certification. Attaining third-party certification for any software project (open source or not) is difficult.

However, the argument that open source software, by its nature, can’t be certified or used in life safety applications is invalid. For example, open source software has been behind image-guided surgery equipment since 2006, spurring innovation and advancement in robotic-assisted platforms and improving patient outcome. In 2018, you can expect to see the transition from “useful” to “essential” for more and more open source projects, especially as the whole industry steps up and learns how to use software as a competitive differentiator in the marketplace.

Martin Focazio is Managing Principal, Business Consulting, EPAM