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23 May 2018

Android and Automotive Grade Linux battle, as car becomes a data center

Volvo’s decision to pick Intel’s Atom automotive system-on-chip (SoC) to run in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) for its new XC40 SUV highlights the intensifying competition among chipmakers in this fast growing sphere. The decision to base the system on Android also illuminates the evolving operating system scene for cars, with Linux the primary alternative in its AGL (Automotive Grade Linux) variant.

However, given the complementary strengths of Android and Linux, it looks more likely that both will be deployed by many automobile makers in hybrid packages, so that they can take advantage of Android’s huge app ecosystem, encouraging plenty of third party enhancements, as well as harnessing the independence and enterprise scale of Linux.

As cars become mini-data centers or edge compute nodes in their own right, as well as personalized hubs serving consumers outside the home, Linux could well become the primary OS of the in-vehicle computer.

But Android (itself based on the Linux kernel … for now) is being widely and successfully deployed in production IVI systems. In some cases, Android is running on its own as the primary operating system as in Volvo’s case, but it can also be a secondary OS to Linux through a hypervisor or container.

This second option is gaining ground given Android’s clear appeal, coupled with the huge traction gained by Linux through the AGL group – whose members include Mazda, Suzuki, Honda, Nissan, Ford, Toyota and Daimler.

AGL is a cross-industry effort developing an open platform based on Linux for the connected car, comprising over 120 members across the ecosystem including component makers and software developers such as Arkamys, Ivis and Paragon as well as the OEMs. It is not to the exclusion of Android since many of its members are working on that too, and the consensus is that both will run in future connected cars as a hybrid implementation.

The underlying point here is that car systems, including IVI and navigation, have been hidebound so far by proprietary software that has inhibited innovation and meant that vehicles have effectively been stuck with the features and UI they were born with through their lives – which can easily be 10 years or more.

Until quite recently, updates were confined to the odd software patch to the infotainment systems and Electronic Control Units (ECU). This is in stark contrast to the smartphone model, where the OS is substantially upgraded every year and new apps are constantly emerging for download, often with scope for upgrading those as well, while new patches for vulnerabilities or to fix bugs are distributed regularly.

That is why Android has become so successful, and not surprisingly there is a desire to replicate that in the connected car – but in that case we are talking about a more complex and diverse environment more akin to the enterprise data center in some respects.

Linux has appeal as a master operating system with its enterprise scale, but with scope for not just Android but also iOS or potentially another OS to run separate IVI stacks allowing differentiation there. The Linux kernel and app framework would then be common to all manufacturers and account for around 75% of the code base for IVI systems, allowing the automakers to customize the rest on top of Android in many cases.

The AGL has built the Unified Code Base (UCB) infotainment platform to meet this requirement and avoid the connected car fragmenting into multiple platforms associated with each manufacturer, as was the case in the very early days of the PC industry.

Intel, which as we know won the PC chip war, is working on both Linux and Android, but it is not yet clear exactly how it will prioritize the two at a time when the boundaries between the fixed software stack and the variable components unique to each automaker have yet to be settled. What is clear is that Intel and Volvo are set on Android – as confirmed by the latest announcement in the XC40 SUV. Intel highlighted its collaboration with Google and Volvo to optimize computing power against cost while developing hardware-rooted security for the latest version of Android OS.

This points to an underlying battle for IVI SoCs, with Intel’s Atom featuring for Volvo, having been optimized for Android. Currently automotive accounts for about 10% of the global semiconductor market but it is growing at double the average industry rate and so is a big prize for the major players. Nvidia is one that has emerged as a force with its AI-optimized GPUs largely on the back of a $1bn deal with Germany’s Audi.

But Qualcomm is emerging as the big beast, or at least will if its $44bn bid for NXP Semiconductors surmounts its final hurdle in the shape of China. It has been caught up in the recent tensions over trade barriers between China and US but with signals they may be abating it looks like Qualcomm is set to become the biggest force in automotive SoCs. NXP itself accelerated through this field with its $11.8bn acquisition of Freescale Semiconductor in 2015, fattening itself up for Qualcomm.