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Symbian on wheels? Auto makers moot ‘open’ architecture

German majors propose standards for auto IT systems

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The auto industry goes open standards? This is possibly more earth-shattering than it would be if Bill Gates admitted he was wrong and gave all his money to Linus Torvalds. Because the auto industry could teach the PC business a few things about achieving lock-in via proprietary IT, and given the amount of IT that's been going into vehicles over the past few years, it's looked like it's getting worse, not better.

The AUTOSAR (AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture) partnership is perhaps something we shouldn't get too excited about yet. It appears to be a commitment to open standards up to a point, with these standards initially being devised by a core group of companies, which at the moment consists of the major German players. Rationally, we can't expect the auto industry to open up to the extent that just anybody could play (there's the safety issue, for starters), and although the founders carry a lot of weight, quite a few more companies will have to join before you could call it an industry-wide initiative.

But the motivation behind the group is interesting, because here we have major companies who are very well positioned to play the proprietary, incompatible cards saying that it doesn't work any more. AUTOSAR has been established "in response to the increasing complexity of E/E [electrical/electronic] systems which, in turn, has been driven by innovative vehicle applications such as driver information and driver assistance systems and increased passenger and legal requirements." The mission statement continues:

"Standardization has resulted in many positive effects, such as reuse and product compatibility, throughout and beyond the automotive industry. AUTOSAR will provide similar benefits for OEMs and suppliers as well as for tool providers and new market entrants. From an OEM's perspective, increasing the penetration of standard software modules will free up valuable resources to focus on the realization of innovative functions. By reusing software modules across product lines and customers, suppliers will be able to reduce their development effort and risk and minimize the levels of product proliferation. The shift from proprietary to standardized interfaces and the resulting increase in transparency will greatly benefit both tool providers and new market entrants."

Which all sounds quite positive, as do some of the objectives:

- Fulfillment of future vehicle requirements, such as availability and safety, SW upgrades/ updates and maintainability
- Increased scalability and flexibility to integrate and transfer functions
- Higher penetration of "Commercial off the Shelf" SW and HW components across product lines
- Improved containment of product and process complexity and risk
- Cost optimization of scalable systems

Note however that the founders intend to devise an open architectural framework within which they'll still be able to compete via innovation, and that they specifically don't want to get into operating systems: "The standardization of automotive operating systems is not regarded as an AUTOSAR goal but existing standards and products such as OSEK, VxWorks, Windows CE for automotive and their derivatives will be taken into consideration and used in AUTOSAR."

So if you take them at face value they're not directly threatening the growing number of companies making plays in in-car multimedia and telematics; by opening up interfaces they could even make it easier for small hardware and software vendors to get into the market. But there's surely a 'stake in ground' aspect to it as well. Symbian with wheels on? Perhaps.

The explanation of the AUTOSAR runtime environment (RTE) is maybe significant here. "At system design level the AUTOSAR runtime environment (RTE) acts as a communication center for inter- and intra- electronic control unit information exchange between architectural elements of layers connected to the AUTOSAR RTE. All communication between AUTOSAR components has to be compliant to the standardized AUTOSAR interface definitions. All other architectural elements have to provide standardized interfaces that are based primarily on already existing standards." So they're envisaging a structure that third parties can plug into, according to the rules.

We'll have to wait for completion before we can judge how much of this is enabling a nascent industry and how much is plain old circling the wagons. This is targeted for August 2006, which is a long time in computer years, but pretty close by auto design standards. ®

Related links

AUTOSAR press release
Information pack PDF (allegedly - we're experiencing some difficulty in getting it to download properly)

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