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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Many Cars Have a Hundred Million Lines of Code

Who gets to write it?

  • December 3, 2012

We spent a lot of time talking about the mobile OS. But how about the automobile OS? Doug Newcomb over at Wired has a smart piece about how, as he puts it the “next big OS war is in your dashboard.” Our cars are increasingly connected, with an infotainment console at their heart. The typical new-model vehicle comes with 100 million lines of code, says Newcomb. And a battle has emerged between proprietary and open source software.

When it comes to making technological experiences, car companies are only good at one thing, really: making cars. People routinely buy fancy cars, only to have their infotainment systems appear laughably outmoded within a year, or even immediately. The GPS system in my mother’s car, for instance, is a constant source of amusement to the Zax family. If we’re lost, we all just pull out our iPhones instead. 

Car companies want to stop being the butt of our, or anyone’s, jokes. “The theme I hear time and time again from every single one of our customers is you’ve got to help us move at the pace of consumer electronics,” QNX Software Systems’ Derek Kuhn told Wired. “It’s no longer acceptable to innovate at the pace of automotive.”

That’s not to say innovation isn’t happening in car infotainment technology. We’ve covered advances on this site. Last month, I wrote about how Japan Display had developed a giant smart car display. Last year, Duncan Graham-Rowe took a look at how an experimental gestural interface for dashboards could help drivers keep their hands on the wheel. Back in 2010, we turned a spotlight on MyFord Touch dashboard, which included two LCD screens on either side of the speedometer to show a range of information (though the price of $1,000 for the option does seem laughably high, doesn’t it?).

But the space is developing, fractured, and contentious. Newcomb traces the outlines of a battle between proprietary players like Microsoft and QNX, which dominate the industry, and more open-source approaches, like Genivi and Linux’s Automotive Grade Linux Work Group.  “Open source is attractive because if you’re a developer in the tier-one or OEM community, you can actually write features into that shared community,” Genivi’s Joel Hoffman told Wired. Ultimately, Newcomb’s reporting suggests that the OS battles may result in a kind of peace between the two polar approaches. One automotive analyst sees a kind of “controlled openness,” similar to what Microsoft has achieved in enterprise, as a likely endpoint for the space.

But can car companies, whose products ought to last something approaching a decade, ever really compete with the user experience of gadgetry, where turnover is more regular? I think the answer is no. And the smartest car companies may be the ones that, instead of trying to replicate the UI delights of smartphones, simply design their dashboards to work together with those smartphones. For more on that vision of the dashboard of the future, be sure to check out Will Knight’s piece in TR about General Motors new partnerships with that Apple icon, Siri. A number of GM’s 2013 models–the Chevrolet Spark or the Sonic LTZ, for instance–enable you to connect your iPhone to the car, and have Siri take on some of the traditional roles of an infotainment console (looking up directions, for instance). Maybe the “smart dashboard” is already in your hands–and it’s your iPad.

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