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Automotive head unit gains traction

Posted: 13 Mar 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:head unit automotive? Genivi alliance? software hardware x86?

Several announcements recently target the same direction: The automotive head unit. There are reasons why this computer will be a highly competitive place. And why now is the time for future players to claim their stake.

Traditionally the term 'head unit' describes a computer that runs the HMI and controls some comfort functions. Over the past years, it increasingly was used to interface multimedia elements. Now it looks like it is on the way to become a central instance for the entire world of infotainment. Currently, many hardware and software elements required are falling in place.

Microsoft has shown its Auto 4.0 platform at the Embedded World trade fair in Nuremberg, Germany. The software and a reference platform was not shown publicly but only in a back room. Nevertheless, after a group of automotive OEMs including BMW and PSA Peugeot Citroen along with major tier ones plus microprocessor vendor Intel had announced their Genivi open source alliance, Microsoft had to signal it is ready to enter this market even faster.

And, last but not least, German software company OpenSynergy announced the x86version of its Coqos operating system which equally aims at the automotive head unit.

Microsoft probably has the most mature offering of the three. Version 4.0 of its Windows Auto platform is not an essential new development but an optimized version of earlier spins. Thus, it can be expected that it is stable enough to attract third-parties to develop software running on top of Version 4. And Microsoft is also business-oriented enough to announce the platform not only as a technical achievement but as an ecosystem on which third parties can build their business models.

With its open-source approach, Genivi is pointing into a different directionbut only as far as technology is concerned. In terms of business, the group is heading to the very same place in the car.

With industry heavyweights such as BMW, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Delphi, Magneti Marelli and Intel, the likelihood is rather high that Genivi can attract third-party vendors. Nevertheless, currently its only member active in the hardware realm is Intel which could lead to the conclusion that the group's platform approach is dominated by Intel's x86 architecture. Some might argue that one platform is not enough to build an open source approach on.

This would be a fallacy, explained Genivi spokesperson Graham Smethurst who at the same time is general manager for BMW's Infotainment and Communication Systems department. Genivi is actively searching to broaden its basein software as well as with respect to the hardware basis. "We plan to bring multiple distributions and multiple silicon platforms under the Genivi umbrella", Smethurst said.

Attractive environment

The third player joining the fray is OpenSynergy, a Berlin-based software startup with roots in the automotive electronics business. At the CeBIT, the company presented the first implementation of its Linux-based, Autosar-compliant Coqos operating system for the x86 platform. Since the x86 world offers the best chances to gather the critical mass in the shortest time, OpenSynergy had decided earlier to port its operating system to this platform. The earlier Coqos version runs on ARM platforms.

OpenSynergy finds Genivi quite an attractive environment, said OpenSynergy CTO Sonck Thiebaut. "Genivi is focused on consumer applications and Linux, so this would be a nice fit for us. We are interested to enter the Genivi alliance," he said.

All three playersthe Genivi group, Microsoft and OpenSynergy, are heading for the same future mega market: the head unit of future cars. The head unit is the platform where infotainment, telematics and multimedia meet, where navigation joins communication and where speech recognition, advanced audio, Web connectivity and even office applications will be united under a graphical-acoustical HMI to form novel applications and enable new business models.

The fact that currently the x86 architecture plays such a dominant role in the strategies of the vendors is a hint that single-board computers with adequate form factor are very competitive in terms of computing power, price, ruggedness and availability. In addition, the x86 software universe certainly has the strongest gravitation and it is easy to imagine that it could further gain additional momentum in the market we are witnessing to emerge.

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