The Software connection

Fault-tolerant microkernel software and modules will increase the functionality, capabilities, and expandability of automotive infotainment systems says QNX.

Andrew Poliak, Automotive Segment Manager, QNX Software Systems (Ottawa, Canada; www.qnx.com), throws out an invented word to describe what increasingly is happening inside cars and trucks. “I call it ‘Scionization’, and it means personalizing as you see fit, not as someone at the car company wants it.” Poliak doesn’t mean trim and materials, or whether the vehicle comes with neon lighting. It is the integration of consumer and OEM electronics, getting them to work together in a seamless and cooperative manner. “We want to bring consumer devices—whether it’s content- or location-based services or your favorite portable device—and enhance them when they’re plugged into the vehicle by using our software to leverage resources in the automobile itself,” he says.

Poliak anticipates that new vehicles will include on-board hard drives like Chrysler’s QNX-based MyGIG unit and have an in-vehicle device network into which car buyers can tap through plugging in or via Bluetooth. QNX claims its modular microkernels make its operating system fault tolerant by protecting the overall system from modules that have “crashed.” Also, by remaining format-neutral—Poliak says QNX “is Switzerland when it comes to media formats”—it can integrate competing formats into compliant modules that can be ported to the vehicle during assembly or as an update. That means you don’t have to choose between Apple’s iPod and Microsoft’s Zune MP3 players. It supports both—at the same time.

What this potentially means for automakers is greater reliability, functionality, branding opportunities, and the ability to offer upgrades via software. At its most elemental, car buyers will be able to add their portable electronic devices without worry. If the devices are QNX-enabled, they can communicate to each other across the network with no special programming. “This allows you to build ultra-thin clients that can use the resources and drivers from the other devices on the network, and gives you the opportunity to add functionality without adding cost,” says Poliak. This functionality, he contends, can travel into and out of the vehicle.

“An OnStar-equipped vehicle, for example, has GPS and dead reckoning capabilities,” he says. “It would be simple to sell an inexpensive add-on that has a map display and dead reckoning that could give you a hand-held portable navigation unit when it’s out of the vehicle, while providing the map display your OnStar system doesn’t have when that unit is in the car.” Or, if that portable navigation unit also has video capability, it can be plugged into the in-car network, and rear seat passengers can send its output to the large screen built into the rear cabin and—if the car’s head unit is Bluetooth enabled—to wireless headphones. “In a microkernel operating system,” says Poliak, “everything is done with a message pass across a software bus. Plugging in another device allows the other devices to recognize its resources, and redirect those messages across to it.”

Already, automakers are looking to software upgrades to provide more premium sound system options, and some analysts predict that 30% of the differentiation available in a vehicle will be provided through software by 2015. “You can create a number of gradations of premium sound that operate within a set hardware specification by turning capabilities on and off in the software,” says Poliak. This won’t eliminate the need to add more powerful amplifiers or better speakers entirely, but it will increase the variety available to the customer—and the profit to both the supplier and OEM—without adding complexity to the vehicle or its assembly plant. In addition, products like its Multimedia Solution—a middleware media player—can not only be used to create an OEM-specific interface, but will allow car buyers to create customized versions while harnessing the on-board resources of the devices that are connected to the network and generating playlists that extend across multiple media sources. It also will allow the driver and passengers to choose what they want to hear via multiple record and playback paths. 

“It’s not that far away,” says Poliak, “when you will pull your car up to the house and it becomes a node on your in-house network. Not only will you be able to access those things that reside in your car, like unique music, you will be able to use the vehicle’s voice command system to control the devices within your home that are part of the network.” Those voice commands would travel through middleware client created with the help of VoiceBox Technologies (www.voicebox.com) content-based voice recognition software that allows management of multiple functions through conversational commands. “It does away with rigid commands and hierarchical menus,” says Poliak, “and picks out the key things you are looking for, which is really important when you are dealing with a lot of data or choices as you do with multimedia.”

Will this reliance on thin clients and the integration of consumer electronic devices spell the end of automotive-specific electronics in the cabin? “There won’t be a move to purely portable devices that don’t need the car stereo or navigation systems,” says Poliak, “because you can’t eliminate the need for units that are integrated into the vehicle bus.” However, he does expect this software migration to separate some connectivity pieces from the head units such that standard automotive-grade connectivity modules are created so portable devices and technologies can be specified much closer to production. “With this technology,” he says, “there’s no reason for automotive electronics to be so many generations behind.”