The software skills shortage in the automotive industry will restrict innovation and growth if left unchecked. Initiatives like BlackBerry’s QNX Everywhere are needed in combination with a strong enablement of third-party developers and the open-source ecosystem to sustain the Software-Defined Vehicle (SDV) transition.
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CES 2024: BlackBerry QNX Everywhere
BlackBerry’s debut of QNX Everywhere at CES 2024 marks an important step toward addressing the significant skills shortage that the automotive software industry is facing today. The initiative is intended to target global demand for embedded systems developers across several markets, and will offer access of QNX software, training, open-source projects, and cloud-enabled development tools to students, academic/research organizations, and hobbyists. As automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) continue to adjust to the software transition in vehicles, and the number of lines of code that go into components continues to grow, more software expertise is needed at the OEM level. Initiatives that address this are crucial to the performance of the industry, and can take the form of education, exposure, and training approaches like QNX Everywhere or, alternatively, companies can use the existing skilled software engineer population through open-source development opportunities like Linux or the Eclipse Foundation.
An Alternative Channel to Address the Skills Shortage: The Open-Source and Third-Party Development Community
Facilitating training and education in automotive software is a promising avenue to ensure meeting the future software needs of OEMs, but the time lag of this approach in actually building in-house software expertise at OEMs means that immediate results cannot be achieved. The industry is suffering from this skills shortage now, and while providing training resources in software will help address this long-term problem, the industry must consider other options to address its immediate effects. One channel that has been explored is the open-source development community. This uses the existing base of developers, rather than building a larger base to recruit from, which has the benefit of a faster utilization of software skills at the cost of ownership of the end product/solution.
Open-source development and engagement of third-party developers have been a staple of the consumer electronics space since before the conception of the mobile app store, and has already been integrated into many aspects of automotive development. The in-vehicle app store model has embraced the advantages of allowing third-party application developers to publish apps on their stores; for Android-powered infotainment systems, this allows the large ecosystem of Android developers to contribute and benefit from a new revenue opportunity through the automotive distribution channel, while using their existing skills. Engagement of third-party developers can also be achieved through development competitions with funding opportunities for winners, such as AirConsole and BMW Group’s Game Developer Conference competition, which awarded its winner funding for their game and a visit to BMW Group’s Headquarters (HQ) to demo their game in a vehicle equipped with the AirConsole platform. Open-source projects such as the Xen Project, which works to provide an open-source hypervisor that has automotive applications, also have an important place in the automotive software ecosystem to encourage development in mixed-criticality systems through safe, standardized protocols. Their enablement of low-criticality virtual machine construction, akin to mobile devices, allows the large pool of mobile application developers to innovate in the automotive space.
How to Effectively Utilize the Open-Source Developer Community
An open-source approach will not be appropriate for all levels of the software stack that go into building a vehicle; for example, safety-critical operations in a vehicle’s cockpit domain controller require a complex coding endeavor that necessitates specialized developers, so open-source development may not be appropriate. However, application layers, virtual machine layers on hypervisors, and middleware are all aspects of vehicle software that can and have been tackled through open-source projects that align industry requirements, lower the cost of developing software components, and reduce reliance of OEMs on a single supplier.
Where nonprofit and open-source development isn’t feasible, lessons from the third-party Android ecosystem for other software layers in the vehicle can be applied. Simply allowing the entry of third-party developers isn’t sufficient however—apart from funding opportunities and revenue shares for developers, providing Software Development Kits (SDKs) and other resources will enable newer software features to flourish and gain traction among larger developer communities. For example, holoride is an in-car Virtual Reality (VR) gaming startup that offers a unique concept for immersive VR experiences that it calls “elastic content.” To promote development of its content, holoride provides an Elastic SDK accompanied by a user guide to walk developers through using this new technology. Providing these resources across other levels of the software automotive software stack, as QNX Everywhere is starting to do, and when accompanied by revenue sharing, funding opportunities, and open-source collaboration, this will mark significant progress in combatting the software skills shortage now, and in the future.
In summary, the industry can approach the skills shortage in several ways:
- In the short term, using hypervisors and the growth of Android in automotive will increase the number of existing developers that can engage in the industry.
- In the medium term, growth in open-source development maximizes software reuse, making the existing developer population more productive.
- In the long term, education and training programs will eventually increase the number of developers that can contribute to automotive, and these programs should be targeted toward mission-critical software development, which is highest in demand and which most existing developers can’t contribute to.