Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A question of architecture

The second of a series on the QNX CAR Platform. In this installment, we start at the beginning — the platform’s underlying architecture.

In my previous post, I discussed how infotainment systems must perform multiple complex tasks, often all at once. At any time, a system may need to manage audio, show backup video, run 3D navigation, synch with Bluetooth devices, display smartphone content, run apps, present vehicle data, process voice signals, perform active noise control… the list goes on.

The job of integrating all these functions is no trivial task — an understatement if ever there was one. But as with any large project, starting with the right architecture, the right tools, and the right building blocks can make all the difference. With that in mind, let’s start at the beginning: the underlying architecture of the QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment.

The architecture consists of three layers: human machine interface (HMI), middleware, and platform.

The HMI layer
The HMI layer is like a bonus pack: it supports two reference HMIs out of the box, both of which have the same appearance and functionality. So what’s the difference? One is based on HTML5, the other on Qt 5. This choice demonstrates the underlying flexibility of the platform, which allows developers to create an HMI with any of several technologies, including HTML5, Qt, or a third-party toolkit such as Elektrobit GUIDE or Crank Storyboard.

A choice of HMIs
Mind you, the choice goes further than that. When you build a sophisticated infotainment system, it soon becomes obvious that no single tool or technology can do the job. The home screen, which may contain controls for Internet radio, hands-free calls, HVAC, and other functions, might need an environment like Qt. The navigation app, for its part, will probably use OpenGL ES. Meanwhile, some applications might be based on Android or HTML5. Together, all these heterogeneous components make up the HMI.

The QNX CAR Platform embraces this heterogeneity, allowing developers to use the best tools and application environments for the job at hand. More to the point, it allows developers to blend multiple app technologies into a single, unified user interface, where they can all share the same display, at the same time.

To perform this blending, the platform employs several mechanisms, including a component called the graphical composition manager . This manager acts as a kind of universal framework, providing all applications, regardless of how they’re built, with a highly optimized path to the display.

For example, look at the following HMI:

Now look at the HMI from another angle to see how it comprises several components blended together by the composition manger:

To the left, you see video input from a connected media player or smartphone. To the right, you see a navigation application based on OpenGL ES map-rendering software, with an overlay of route metadata implemented in Qt. And below, you see an HTML page that provides the underlying wallpaper; this page could also display a system status bar and UI menu bar across all screens.

For each component rendered to the display, the graphical composition manager allocates a separate window and frame buffer. It also allows the developer to control the properties of each individual window, including location, transparency, rotation, alpha, brightness, and z-order. As a result, it becomes relatively straightforward to tile, overlap, or blend a variety of applications on the same screen, in whichever way creates the best user experience.

The middleware layer
The middleware layer provides applications with a rich assortment of services, including Bluetooth, multimedia discovery and playback, navigation, radio, and automatic speech recognition (ASR). The ASR component, for example, can be used to turn on the radio, initiate a Bluetooth phone call from a connected smartphone, or select a song by artist or song title.

I’ll drill down into several of these services in upcoming posts. For now, I’d like to focus on a fundamental service that greatly simplifies how all other services and applications in the system interact with one another. It’s called persistent/publish subscribe messaging, or PPS, and it provides the abstraction needed to cleanly separate high-level applications from low-level business logic and services.

PPS messaging provides an abstraction layer between system services and high-level applications

Let’s rewind a minute. To implement communications between software components, C/C++ developers must typically define direct, point-to-point connections that tend to “break” when new features or requirements are introduced. For instance, an application communicates with a navigation engine, but all connections enabling that communication must be redefined when the system is updated with a different engine.

This fragility might be acceptable in a relatively simple system, but it creates a real bottleneck when you are developing something as complex, dynamic, and quickly evolving as the design for a modern infotainment system. PPS addresses the problem by allowing developers to create loose, flexible connections between components. As a result, it becomes much easier to add, remove, or replace components without having to modify other components.

So what, exactly, is PPS? Here’s a textbook answer: an asynchronous object-based system that consists of publishers and subscribers, where publishers modify the properties of data objects and the subscribers to those objects receive updates when the objects have been modified.

So what does that mean? Well, in a car, PPS data objects allow applications to access services such as the multimedia engine, voice recognition engine, vehicle buses, connected smartphones, hands-free calling, and contact databases. These data objects can each contain multiple attributes, each attribute providing access to a specific feature — such as the RPM of the engine, the level of brake fluid, or the frequency of the current radio station. System services publish these objects and modify their attributes; other programs can then subscribe to the objects and receive updates whenever the attributes change.

The PPS service is programming-language independent, allowing programs written in a variety of programming languages (C, C++, HTML5, Java, JavaScript, etc.) to intercommunicate, without any special knowledge of one another. Thus, an app in a high-level environment like HTML5 can easily access services provided by a device driver or other low-level service written in C or C++.

I’m only touching on the capabilities of PPS. To learn more, check out the QNX documentation on this service.

The platform layer
The platform layer includes the QNX OS and the board support packages, or BSPs, that allow the OS to run on various hardware platforms.

An inherently modular and extensible architecture
A BSP may not sound like the sexiest thing in the world — it is, admittedly, a deeply technical piece of software — but without it, nothing else works. And, in fact, one reason QNX Software Systems has such a strong presence in automotive is that it provides BSPs for all the popular infotainment platforms from companies like Freescale, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Texas Instruments.

As for the QNX Neutrino OS, you could write a book about it — which is another way of saying it’s far beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that its modularity, extensibility, reliability, and performance set the tone for the entire QNX CAR Platform. To get a feel for what the QNX OS brings to the platform (and by extension, to the automotive industry), I invite you to visit the QNX Neutrino OS page on the QNX website.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A sweet ride? You’d better 'beleave' it

Is Autumn the best season for a long, leisurely Sunday drive? Well, I don’t know about your neck of the woods, but in my neck, the trees blaze like crimson, orange, and yellow candles, transfiguring back roads into cathedrals of pure color. When I see every leaf on every tree glow like a piece of sunlight-infused stained glass, I make a religious effort to jump behind the wheel and get out there!

Now, of course, you can enjoy your Autumn drive in any car worth its keep. But some cars make the ride sweeter than others — and the Mercedes S Class Coupe, with its QNX-powered infotainment system and instrument cluster, is deliciously caloric.

This isn’t a car for the prim, the proper, the austere. It’s for pure pleasure – whether you take pleasure in performance, luxury, or beauty of design. Or all three. The perfect car, in other words, for an Autumn drive. Which is exactly what the folks at Mercedes thought. In fact, they made a photo essay about — check it out on their Facebook page.

Source: Mercedes

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Attending SAE Convergence? Here’s why you should visit booth 513

Cars and beer don’t mix. But discussing cars while having a beer? Now you’re talking. If you’re attending SAE Convergence next week, you owe it to yourself to register for our “Spirits And Eats” event at 7:00 pm Tuesday. It’s the perfect occasion to kick back and enjoy the company of people who, like yourself, are passionate about cars and car electronics. And it isn’t a bad networking opportunity either — you’ll meet folks from a variety of automakers, Tier 1s, and technology suppliers in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere.

But you know what? It isn’t just about the beer. Or the company. It’s also about the Benz. Our digitally modded Mercedes-Benz CLA45 AMG, to be exact. It’s the latest QNX technology concept car, and it’s the perfect vehicle (pun fully intended) for demonstrating how QNX technology can enable next-generation infotainment systems. Highlights include:

  • A multi-modal user experience that blends touch, voice, and physical controls
  • A secure application environment for Android, HTML5, and OpenGL ES
  • Smartphone connectivity options for projecting smartphone apps onto the head unit
  • A dynamically reconfigurable digital instrument cluster that displays turn-by-turn directions, notifications of incoming phone calls, and video from front and rear cameras
  • Multimedia framework for playback of content from USB sticks, DLNA devices, etc.
  • Full-band stereo calling — think phone calls with CD quality audio
  • Engine sound enhancement that synchronizes synthesized engine sounds with engine RPM

Here, for example, is the digital cluster:

And here is a closeup of the head unit:

And here’s a shot of the cluster and head unit together:

As for the engine sound enhancement and high-quality hands-free audio, I can’t reproduce these here — you’ll have come see the car and experience them first hand. (Yup, that's an invite.)

If you like what you see, and are interested in what you can hear, visit us at booth #513. And if you'd like to schedule a demo or reserve some time with a QNX representative in advance, we can accommodate that, too. Just send us an email.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Are you ready to stop micromanaging your car?

I will get to the above question. Honest. But before I do, allow me to pose another one: When autonomous cars go mainstream, will anyone even notice?

The answer to this question depends on how you define the term. If you mean completely and absolutely autonomous, with no need for a steering wheel, gas pedal, or brake pedal, then yes, most people will notice. But long before these devices stop being built into cars, another phenomenon will occur: people will stop using them.

Allow me to rewind. Last week, Tesla announced that its Model S will soon be able to “steer to stay within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by reading road signs and using traffic-aware cruise control.” I say soon because these functions won't be activated until owners download a software update in the coming weeks. But man, what an update.

Tesla may now be at the front of the ADAS wave, but the wave was already forming — and growing. Increasingly, cars are taking over mundane or hard-to-perform tasks, and they will only become better at them as time goes on. Whether it’s autonomous braking, automatic parking, hill-descent control, adaptive cruise control, or, in the case of the Tesla S, intelligent speed adaptation, cars will do more of the driving and, in so doing, socialize us into trusting them with even more driving tasks.

Tesla Model S: soon with autopilot
In other words, the next car you buy will prepare you for not having to drive the car after that.

You know what’s funny? At some point, the computers in cars will probably become safer drivers than humans. The humans will know it, but they will still clamor for steering wheels, brake pedals, and all the other traditional accoutrements of driving. Because people like control. Or, at the very least, the feeling that control is there if you want it.

It’s like cameras. I would never think of buying a camera that didn’t have full manual mode. Because control! But guess what: I almost never turn the mode selector to M. More often than not, it’s set to Program or Aperture Priority, because both of these semi-automated modes are good enough, and both allow me to focus on taking the picture, not on micromanaging my camera.

What about you? Are you ready for a car that needs a little less micromanagement?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A question of concurrency

The first of a new series on the QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment. In this installment, I tackle the a priori question: why does the auto industry need this platform, anyway?

Define your terms, counseled Voltaire, and in keeping with his advice, allow me to begin with the following:

Concurrency \kən-kûr'-ən-sē\ n (1597) Cooperation, as of agents, circumstances, or events; agreement or union in action.

A good definition, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t go far enough for the purposes of this discussion. Wikipedia comes closer to the mark:

“In computer science, concurrency is a property of systems in which several computations execute simultaneously, and potentially interact with each other.”

That’s better, but it still falls short. However, the Wikipedia entry also states that:

“the base goals of concurrent programming include correctness, performance and robustness. Concurrent systems… are generally designed to operate indefinitely, including automatic recovery from failure, and not terminate unexpectedly.”

Now that’s more like it. Concurrency in computer systems isn’t simply a matter of doing several things all at once; it’s also a matter of delivering a solid user experience. The system must always be available and it must always be responsive: no “surprises” allowed.

This definition seems tailored-made for in-car infotainment systems. Here, for example, are some of the tasks that an infotainment system may perform:

  • Run a variety of user applications, from 3D navigation to Internet radio, based on a mix of technologies, including Qt, HTML5, Android, and OpenGL ES
  • Manage multiple forms of input: voice, touch, physical buttons, etc. 
  • Support multiple smartphone connectivity protocols such as MirrorLink and Apple CarPlay 
  • Perform services that smartphones cannot support, including:
    • HVAC control
    • discovery and playback of multimedia from USB sticks, DLNA devices, MTP devices, and other sources
    • retrieval and display of fuel levels, tire pressure, and other vehicle information
    • connectivity to Bluetooth devices
  • Process voice signals to ensure the best possible quality of phone-based hands-free systems — this in itself can involve many tasks, including echo and noise removal, dynamic noise shaping, speech enhancement, etc. 
  • Perform active noise control to eliminate unwanted engine “boom” noise 
  • Offer extremely fast bootup times; a backup camera, for example, must come up within a second or two to be useful
Jugging multiple concurrent tasks
The primary user of an infotainment system is the driver. So, despite juggling all these activities, an infotainment system must never show the strain. It must always respond quickly to user input and critical events, even when many activities compete for system resources. Otherwise, the driver will become annoyed or, worse, distracted. The passengers won’t be happy, either.

Still, that isn’t enough. Automakers also need to differentiate themselves, and infotainment serves as a key tool for achieving differentiation. So the infotainment system must not simply perform well; it must also allow the vehicle, or line of vehicles, to project the unique values, features, and brand identity of the automaker.

And even that isn’t enough. Most automakers offer multiple vehicle lines, each encompassing a variety of configurations and trim levels. So an infotainment design must also be scalable; that way, the work and investment made at the high end can be leveraged in mid-range and economy models. Because ROI.

Projecting a unique identity
But you know what? That still isn’t enough. An infotainment system design must also be flexible. It must, for example, support new functionality through software updates, whether such updates are installed through a storage device or over the air. And it must have the ability to accommodate quickly evolving connectivity protocols, app environments, and hardware platforms. All with the least possible fuss.

The nitty and the gritty
Concurrency, performance, reliability, differentiation, scalability, flexibility — a tall order. But it’s exactly the order that the QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment was designed to fill.

Take, for example, product differentiation. If you look at the QNX-powered infotainment systems that automakers are shipping today, one thing becomes obvious: they aren’t cookie-cutter systems. Rather, they each project the unique values, features, and brand identity of each automaker — even though they are all built on the same, standards-based platform.

So how does the QNX CAR Platform enable all this? That’s exactly what my colleagues and I will explore over the coming weeks and months. We’ll get into the nitty and sometimes the gritty of how the platform works and why it offers so much value to companies that develop infotainment systems in various shapes, forms, and price points.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A glaring look at rear-view mirrors

Some reflections on the challenge of looking backwards, followed by the vexing question: where, exactly, should video from a backup camera be displayed?

Mirror, mirror, above the dash, stop the glare and make it last! Okay, maybe I've been watching too many Netflix reruns of Bewitched. But mirror glare, typically caused by bright headlights, is a problem — and a dangerous one. It can create temporary blind spots on your retina, leaving you unable to see cars or pedestrians on the road around you.

Automotive manufacturers have offered solutions to this problem for decades. For instance, many car mirrors now employ electrochromism, which allows the mirror to dim automatically in response to headlights and other light sources. But when, exactly, did the first anti-glare mirrors come to market?

According to Wikipedia, the first manual-tilt day/night mirrors appeared in the 1930s. These mirrors typically use a prismatic, wedge-shaped design in which the rear surface (which is silvered) and the front surface (which is plain glass) are at angles to each other. In day view, you see light reflected off the silvered rear surface. But when you tilt the mirror to night view, you see light reflected off the unsilvered front surface, which, of course, has less glare.

Manual-tilt day/night mirrors may have debuted in the 30s, but they were still a novelty in the 50s. Witness this article from the September 1950 issue of Popular Science:

True to their name, manual-tilt mirrors require manual intervention: You have to take your hand off the wheel to adjust them, after you’ve been blinded by glare. Which is why, as early as 1958, Chrysler was demonstrating mirrors that could tilt automatically, as shown in this article from the October 1958 issue of Mechanix Illustrated:

Images: Modern Mechanix blog

Fast-forward to backup cameras
Electrochromic mirrors, which darken electronically, have done away with the need to tilt, either manually or automatically. But despite their sophistication, they still can't overcome the inherent drawbacks of rear-view mirrors, which provide only a partial view of the area behind the vehicle — a limitation that contributes to backover accidents, many of them involving small children. Which is why NHTSA has mandated the use of backup cameras by 2018 and why the last two QNX technology concept cars have shown how video from backup cameras can be integrated with other content in a digital instrument cluster.

Actually, this raises the question: just where should backup video be displayed? In the cluster, as demonstrated in our concept cars? Or in the head unit, the rear-view mirror, or a dedicated screen? The NHTSA ruling doesn’t mandate a specific device or location, which isn't surprising, as each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Consider, for example, ease of use: Will drivers find one location more intuitive and less distracting than the alternatives? In all likelihood, the answer will vary from driver to driver and will depend on individual cognitive styles, driving habits, and vehicle design.

Another issue is speed of response. According to NHTSA’s ruling, any device displaying backup video must do so within 2.5 seconds of the car shifting into the reverse. Problem is, the ease of complying with this requirement depends on the device in question. For instance, NHTSA acknowledges that “in-mirror displays (which are only activated when the reverse gear is selected) may require additional warm-up time when compared to in-dash displays (which may be already in use for other purposes such as route navigation).”

At first blush, in-dash displays such as head units and digital clusters have the advantage here. But let’s remember that booting quickly can be a challenge for these systems because of their greater complexity — many offer a considerable amount of functionality. So imagine what happens when the driver turns the ignition key and almost immediately shifts into reverse. In that case, the cluster or head unit must boot up and display backup video within a handful of seconds. It's important, then, that system designers choose an OS that not only supports rich functionality, but also allows the system to start up and initialize applications in the least time possible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ontario tech companies team up to target the connected car

To predict who will play a role tomorrow's connected vehicles, you need to look beyond the usual suspects.

When someone says “automobile,” what’s the first word that comes to mind? Chances are, it isn’t Ontario. And yet Ontario — the Canadian province that is home to QNX headquarters — is a world-class hub of automotive R&D and manufacturing. Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, and Toyota all have plants here. As do 350 parts suppliers. In fact, Ontario produced 2.5 million vehicles in 2012 alone.

No question, Ontario has the smarts to build cars. But to fully appreciate what Ontario has to offer, you need to look beyond the usual suspects in the auto supply chain. Take QNX Software Systems, for example. Our roots are in industrial computing, but in the early 2000s we started to offer software technology and expertise to the world’s automakers and tier one suppliers. And now, a decade later, QNX offers the premier platform for in-car infotainment, with deployments in tens of millions of vehicles.

QNX Software Systems is not alone. Ontario is home to many other “non-automotive” technology companies that are playing, or are poised to play, a significant role in creating new automotive experiences. But just who are these companies? The Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association (APMA) of Canada would like you to know. Which is why they've joined forces with QNX and other partners to build the APMA Connected Vehicle.

A showcase for Ontario technology.
The purpose of the vehicle is simple: to showcase how Ontario companies can help create the next generation of connected cars. The vehicle is based on a Lexus RX350 — built in Ontario, of course — equipped with a custom-built infotainment system and digital instrument cluster built on QNX technology. Together, the QNX systems integrate more than a dozen technologies and services created in Ontario, including gesture recognition, biometric security, emergency vehicle notification, LED lighting, weather telematics, user interface design, smartphone charging, and cloud connectivity.

Okay, enough from me. Time to nuke some popcorn, dim the lights, and hit the Play button: