Wind River and BlackBerry QNX turn Ottawa into automotive battleground

Open-source solutions gain ground on industry leader
Car tech

Tech leaders and politicians often like to pitch Ottawa as a potential hub for automotive software, but it may be more accurately described as a battleground. While BlackBerry QNX has generated the lion’s share of fanfare in the city’s development efforts in autonomous drive and connected cars, Kanata neighbour Wind River has amassed a substantial presence and significant momentum in the field over its two decades in the capital.

Wind River, a subsidiary of Intel, came to Kanata in 1997 on the promise of talent during the telecom boom. The California-based firm’s local presence has ballooned from three back then to roughly 235 today at its office on Terry Fox Drive.

Its Kanata operations span across most of Wind River’s work in connected systems, including the automotive software and the emerging Internet of Things. Throughout most of the company’s 30-plus year history, it has dealt with OEMs, though it is increasingly dealing with end-user customers.

President Jim Douglas says much of the firm’s work involves developing and implementing embedded systems across aerospace, defense, automotive, telecom and industrial sectors. Put another way, Wind River software flows through both F-18 fighter jets and Formula One racecars.

“I jokingly always say, ‘We’re in anything that moves,’” Douglas says.

The Linux approach

Wind River represents not only a competitor to BlackBerry QNX, but an alternative approach to the development of automotive software. The company develops on the open-source platform Linux, attractive to automakers for several reasons. For one, it allows an easier way to shift its products and services to another developer using Linux standards, instead of being locked into a supply chain with proprietary providers.

Wind River is also a member of the Linux Foundation, a consortium of automakers, software developers and large companies such as IBM, Amazon Web Services and Google that come together to collaborate on industry-advancing products. Recently, Toyota Motors selected Automotive Grade Linux as the infotainment platform for its next model of Camry, a Linux Foundation project that Wind River worked on.

That’s a contract that BlackBerry QNX lost out on, and it reflects a shrinking market share for the company. While QNX used to have more than half of the infotainment systems market, it’s still the leader with 48 per cent market share, according to figures from analysts at IHS Automotive. Linux-based systems currently stand at 20 per cent market share, but that’s set to rise as Microsoft (16 per cent) exits the market. These solutions are largely developed by organizations such as the Linux Foundation and GENIVI, an alliance that counts Wind River as a founding member.

Apart from the technical capabilities of Linux, Douglas believes working with the foundation on products such as Automotive Grade Linux give Wind River the edge. It advances the market, he says, to collaborate and establish standards for the future of embedded systems: the bigger the pond, the bigger a fish Wind River can become.

“We’re much better off having a good market share in a really big market than having a big market share in a really tiny market.”

Battlegrounds in the car

While autonomous drive is on the horizon, Douglas says developing software for the cabin is the near-term priority for companies like Wind River and BlackBerry QNX.

“This has become the battleground in the short-term. People are trying to create that continuous consumer experience between home, between travel, between the car and between all of your devices,” he says.

Infotainment

“Every ad you see for a car today, they’re not talking about power, they’re not talking about economy, they’re talking about the cabin and the experience.”

Douglas believes that as the industry drives towards autonomous vehicles, Wind River will have the advantage in integrating cabin-experience software with the autonomous driving platforms, based on the work it's done in embedded systems on aircrafts, for example.

Reducing the weight and stresses of hundreds of computer systems has been a priority in aerospace for years now, Douglas says, and those concerns are transferrable to automotive.

"Every ad you see for a car today, they’re not talking about power, they’re not talking about economy, they’re talking about the cabin and the experience."

“Just the weight of the wiring alone will have a huge impact of the systems,” he says.

BlackBerry QNX has built its brand around the safety and security of its systems, a legacy from its days as a handheld device manufacturer. Douglas says there are ways to build a system based on Linux that is highly secure as well. Most commonly, this is done by isolating the more critical components – the ones that can’t afford to fail – away from the rest of the system, protecting it from attacks that may affect more vulnerable elements.

Linux is not often used in such cases, but Douglas says there’s no reason Linux can’t still be part of a vehicle’s secure systems.

“There absolutely are ways to implement Linux in secure environments. We do it all the time.”

Hub potential

For all the discussions around Ottawa’s potential as a hub for autonomous vehicles, Douglas says he doesn’t see it quite yet. The assets are here: the infrastructure, talent, and high-caliber businesses; but the wider initiatives aren’t there yet.

He’d like to see examples such as what Wind River is doing in Ohio, collaborating with the City of Dublin and local universities to facilitate a testing ground for autonomous systems with the eventual goal of building a smart city with this technology.

“It’s pretty exciting to see what’s going on in a lot of cities today. It’s going to accelerate the adoption of a lot of autonomous capabilities that everybody’s so excited about. I think it gets talked a lot about in Ottawa. I’m very optimistic that Ottawa should and will be one of those cities, would be great to see them accelerate.”