04 October 2013

Linux Leads Self-Driving Car Movement

As Linux continues to gain headway in in-vehicle infotainment (IVI), it's already finding its way into early designs for self-driving cars. Google's autonomous car computers run Linux, as do prototypes from GM and Volkswagen. Meanwhile, Cohda Wireless is leading a new wave of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) sensor products with its Linux-driven MK2 radio.

The market is potentially huge. On Aug. 21, Navigant Research projected that sales of autonomous vehicles will surpass 95 million units by 2035, representing 75 percent of all light-duty vehicle sales.
Google's Ubuntu-based self-driving Toyota Prius has led the way, logging over 500,000 miles of autonomous driving with no accidents caused by the computer, says Google. A year ago, its success led California to pass a law allowing autonomous cars to operate by 2015, assuming safety certification. Florida and Nevada have also legalized autonomous vehicles for testing, but as with California, only with a human driver present. Other states are also prepping legislation.

This week at the Frankfurt Car Show, Google is expected to announce a partnership with IBM and auto-components manufacturer Continental AG to build autonomous driving systems, according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It's unclear whether the partners will build an autonomous system that can be added to existing cars, or as Jessica Lessin speculates in her Aug. 23 blog analysis, possibly a self-driving car designed from scratch by Google. Such a vehicle might be considered the Nexus of the automotive world.

Continental has already racked up thousands of miles of testing in Nevada using a VW Passat modified with its own autonomous technology. Strategy Analytics' Mark Fitzgerald told Linux.com that Continental's system "likely" uses Linux technology.

Lessin also reported that Google is negotiating on a partnership to provide driverless cars as part of a "robo-taxi" service. The Independent says the plan likely includes Google-funded Uber, which offers a popular taxi-hailing and car-sharing service. In July, Uber announced plans to purchase 2,500 driverless cars from Google.

Automakers Refine Prototypes

Google's success has accelerated autonomous research at automakers including GM, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Volkswagen/Audi, and Volvo. On Aug. 27, Nissan became the first automaker to announce plans for an autonomous car. The company said it will introduce its first autonomous vehicles by 2020, and will offer autonomous functionality across the model range within two vehicle generations.

Like most manufacturers, Nissan is keeping its technology under wraps. Nissan has used Windows Embedded Automotive in its Nissan Leaf IVI system, but the company is also a member of the GENIVI Alliance, which is standardizing IVI technology based on Linux. Its Nissan Research Center Silicon Valley (NRC-SV) is collaborating with Renault, which is working on Android-based IVI systems, as well as research institutions including Stanford University and MIT. Last year, MIT unveiled a Linux-based semi-autonomous driving system built into a Kawasaki Mule.

Volkswagen has had a longer collaboration with Stanford on Linux-based autonomous technology. Their Stanley vehicle won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, followed by Junior, which was a runner up in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Junior continues to be developed, but Volkswagen is also experimenting with Solaris on a recent Audi-based prototype.

GM and Carnegie-Mellon University have long collaborated on developing tuxified autonomous cars in DARPA events. The GM-CMU Autonomous Driving Collaborative Research Lab has developed a Linux-based SAFER [PDF] fault-tolerant platform that protects against processor and task failures for the numerous distributed embedded systems found in self-driving cars. The system is built into a modified Cadillac SRX, a model that also offers the Linux-based CUE IVI system.

Toyota, meanwhile, is doing self-driving research on a Lexus LS at its TRINA project. The OS was not revealed, but Toyota signed an agreement with Microsoft to work on a Windows Azure platform for next-generation telematics. On the other hand, Toyota is a founding member of the Linux Foundation's Automotive Grade Linux working group, which is exploring autonomous technologies in addition to IVI. The company also recently unveiled the Toyota Lexus IS, which includes a Linux-based IVI system.

Google vs. the Automakers

One of the biggest obstacles to autonomous cars is the automotive industry itself. Google was rebuffed by car manufacturers before it started courting auto-components companies like Continental. In addition to fearing the invasion of Google into their turf -- shades of Google TV – automakers have long been resistant to new technologies. Others have suggested that carmakers fear the impact of fewer accidents and easier car-sharing on repairs and car sales.

Even as some U.S. automakers prep autonomous designs of their own, they are already lobbying politicians to limit autonomous technology in favor of semi-autonomous gear. According to The Wall Street Journal, legislation is being proposed that would require a 25-mph speed limit and a foam front bumper for self-driving models.

Strategy Analytics's Fitzgerald would not speculate on the OS landscape for self-driving cars, but suggested that the technology would evolve out of telematics systems rather than IVI, where Linux is more established. "Self-driving vehicles will use some aspects of an IVI OS, but their safety critical nature will most likely follow OSs that are used in aviation and drones," said Fitzgerald. This telematics focus, he suggests, means real-time operating systems (RTOSes) like Green Hills Integrity and QNX should have an advantage over Linux and Windows Embedded Automotive.

On the other hand, Google has surprised the automotive industry with the success of a car computer that lacks a fully deterministic, real-time OS. Its Ubuntu build does not even use a real-time Linux kernel, but gets by on SCHED_FIFO and control groups to provide "realtime-ish" response, according to an LWN.net report.

While most of the Linux prototypes have used x86 chips, ARM chip manufacturers are prepping processors aimed at telematics, including Freescale's recently tipped i.MX6 Next and i.MX8 processors. Combined with Linux' progress in IVI systems, and the prototypes from Google, GM, and VW, these developments bode well for a major Linux presence in autonomous vehicles.

Read more: Mercedes-Benz’s Google Glass app streams directions straight to your eyeballs


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