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Linux: Coming to an Infotainment System Near You

Open source: when it comes to operating systems, we're all for it, but as soon as you move into financial services or the automotive industry, people begin to get a bit wary. After all, billions of dollars or millions of lives could be on the line. But all it takes to break into an industry is for a single company to open its mind.

This was the note on which Jim Zemlin ended his opening keynote at this years Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit in San Francisco, Calif. He then introduced Matt Jones, senior technical specialist of infotainment for Jaguar Land Rover, which may become the company that brings Linux to the automotive industry.

Jones' experience is with Automotive Grade Linux (AGL), a collaboration built upon more than $10 billion of investments to the Linux kernel, combined with contributions from communications, consumer electronics and automotive industries.

Jones is also vice president of the GENIVI Alliance, a non-profit that hopes to establish a globally competitive Linux-based platform, complete with an operating system and middleware. Other key GENIVI players include: GM, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, and NVIDIA, all of whom are currently busy at work on AGL.

But in spite of GENIVI's clear objectives, Jones was quick to point out that having a plan isn't paramount, given the changing nature of the marketplace. “We're Linux. We're open source. We're trying to deliver solutions to an evolving customer expectation.”

In 2011, Jaguar Land Rover set out to determine what its customers want in a car. But the results of their survey sounded less than promising. People wanted their HD TV screens, Siri, and their smarphone's near-constant Internet connectivity in their car. And once they started asking about what respondents wanted by 2014, the answers were even more frustrating—none of them knew. Instead, they simply said they wanted a “killer app.”

Jones explained that the problem with setting a goal for delivering what people will want out of their entertainment systems in five year's time is that consumers don't map out what their desires will be years or even months down the road. Instead, people consistently ask to have the functionality of their devices outside of their car put into the car. The trouble is that in five years all of those features will change, as will their requests.

While high-quality displays and voice activation are an obvious reflection on technologies like Siri and ultra-HD screens, it's worth pointing out that they do offer clear safety benefits. It means less time glancing at an infotainment console and more time spent paying attention to the road. So even though these might not be hot technologies in 2014 and beyond, Jones and his team still plan to build them into their system.

But ultimately people don't buy cars because of their operating system—at least not today.

And this is something the AGL team is working to change. With the right people involved, they hope that an operating system won't only be a major part of infotainment, but every electronic component of a vehicle as well.

To make this happen, the team's goal is to provide their clientele with an image that can be flashed onto a drive and be up and running in minutes. That, along with suggested reference hardware that they wouldn't have to debug, and a GUI that developers can then build upon. Although this isn't new to the industry, it is new to open source, meaning that no one has just given this sort of technology away up—until now.

The next step was to build an application framework that apps could be dropped right into and work straight away. The result is the IVI & Remote Vehicle Interaction Demo. It can control the car's sensors, HVAC with GUI add-ins for a media layer, and even a back-end server in the cloud.

This prototype will never go into production as it currently is, because as Jones pointed out, by the time the system reaches production consumer needs will have changed. But for the time being, it has demonstrated some interesting applications that may be in store for the future.

For instance, the car's HVAC is remotely connected to a website such that Jones can adjust the temperature in his car before he even gets out in bed in the morning, so he never has to walk outside to a freezing car.

But this is but one feature that is in the works. Jones added that eventually he will be able to control every aspect of his car remotely, except for the driving. But he's even working on that as well, which could mean a slew of new toys for Jaguar Land Rover vehicles.

Even so, Jones by no means wants to keep this technology within the company.

“I don't want it just for myself. I want whatever we create to be available on every vehicle.”

And to help make this an industry-wide reality, Jones concluded his keynote with the announcement of the 2013 AGL User Experience Contest. Here, developers can compete for Best User Experience, Best Visual Appearance, and Best New Concept or Additional Feature. The contest began on April 15 and will come to a close on May 17, at which point the winners will be announced at the Automotive Linux Summit in Tokyo. Better yet, the winners will get the chance to work with AGL and Jaguar Land Rover.  

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