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Open Source: a key ally in developing future software

5.12.2019
Open Source: a key ally in developing future software

Open Source is becoming increasingly important in software development and could help Volkswagen Group make progress on its way from a pure car manufacturer to a car and software provider.

Open Source means software that can be downloaded and used free of charge from the internet. For developers that means not having to write new code yourself for every small problem. If someone else has already solved a similar problem, you can use the existing solution.

This is of course interesting for all software-driven companies. “Open Source would have been unthinkable at Volkswagen Group until recently, but a paradigm shift is now taking place,” says Oliver Hartkopp, IT specialist and expert for Open Source software within the Volkswagen Group. “Unlike freeware, however, users cannot do what they want with Open Source software as the code comes with a license, of which more than 200 different types exist”.

The value of licences

Some licenses are very liberal, with others very restrictive. For example, there are licenses requiring that, when a car is sold, the software used in the navigation system is credited. Sometimes licenses are so complex that the software cannot be used in an industrial environment.

Open Source is a key topic and Hartkopp’s job is to anchor it within Volkswagen Group by organising workshops, giving training courses for developers together with the legal department, as well as delivering Skype conferences. “I’m kind of a missioner”, admits Hartkopp.

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Interacting with the community

His goal is to explain the advantages and the challenges of Open Source to as many colleagues as possible - Open Source doesn’t just mean using other people’s work, you also have to contribute something. Anyone who uses code from the community and develops it further will upload the results again later. For example on Github, a kind of social media platform for Open Source developers.

Linux and CAN bus

Oliver Hartkopp is 52 years old and has worked for the Volkswagen Group for 20 years. “When I was little, I wanted to do something with cars and computers. Unlike me, not many people can claim to have made their childhood dreams come true”.

Hartkopp has always been intensively involved with Open Source and the Linux operating system, and in 2003 created an extension to access the CAN bus (Controller Area Network) via standardised interfaces. Previously, Volkswagen Group always purchased new systems from new suppliers, increasing costs and operational complexity.

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The SocketCAN system

The first version of the software, as well as the extensions to the Linux operating system, were published by Volkswagen as Open Source in 2006. The project was further developed by the community under the name SocketCAN, and has been an integral part of Linux since 2008. Since then, Hartkopp has been responsible for more than 6,000 lines of code in the Linux kernel – the “core” of the operating system. SocketCAN’s uses are not just limited to cars however. Some fish trawlers on the Atlantic, heavy-duty cranes in the port of Hamburg, and the CERN nuclear research facility in Geneva also use the software, which had its origins at Volkswagen Group.

Hartkopp uses a Golf in which a Linux computer controls the complete vehicle networking to demonstrate what you can do with SocketCAN. The PC, made up of standard hardware, processes and distributes over 22,000 messages per second. Hartkopp touches his tablet’s display to simultaneously turn the vehicle’s steering wheel and front wheels. This is just one of several functions that can be controlled via the tablet; more than 25 million lines of code came from the Open Source community with Hartkopp only having to contribute about 2,000 lines.

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Community and developers

However, using Open Source at Volkswagen Group is one thing, making Open Source available and further developing it together with the community is quite another. “That’s why we have developed processes and training courses to train Open Source enablers”, says Hartkopp. “At present, there are around 50 of them that work actively in ‘Open Source Communities’ on behalf of Volkswagen Group. That’s the exciting thing: to bring the completely different idea of Open Source into the company and to create the conditions for it”.

Transforming future work

The new Car.Software organisation, which brings all IT experts together will make Open Source even more important because work will be approached according to different premises. “The separation of hardware and software ensures continuous further development of the software, which can be decoupled from individual vehicle start-ups far more than today,” says Hartkopp. In addition, the new unit and the increase in software developed in-house will make Volkswagen Group a much more attractive employer for the most talented software developers. “I think it’s really exciting to be a pioneer in shaping this new culture here at Volkswagen Group”, concludes Hartkopp.

SourceVolkswagen AG

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