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A Trinity of Core Components Enables Digital Cockpits in Cars

AUTOMOTIVE / 06.07.17 / Romain Saha

The dawn of the digital cockpit has arrived. Loosely defined, the digital cockpit combines an automobile’s digital instrument clusters and infotainment systems into a more unified user experience. More comprehensive definitions may also include heads-up displays and features such as gaze tracking.

There is nothing inherently complicated in the development of a digital cockpit. Infotainment system design is well understood, and digital instrument clusters, while a somewhat newer addition to the vehicle interior, are in production today. Heads-up displays have also been available for quite some time.

There are few digital cockpits on the market, aside from those in production luxury cars.

This rarity is because running three systems in a vehicle is a costly proposition. Mainstream adoption of the digital cockpit necessitates a different approach. It requires that we simplify the overall design, collapsing hardware onto a single System on a Chip (SoC) and board.

(Skip ahead to the middle of the post to learn more about how our latest software update makes it even easier for carmakers to create digital cockpits. Or read on.)

There are three important considerations:

Does the SoC have the processing capability required to run two or more subsystems simultaneously? 

  1. Does the foundational software leverage the underlying hardware in a way that meets overall system requirements?
  2. How can you create a truly unified user experience?

1. The SoC

Today’s SoCs are powerful. A single chip can run infotainment systems, instrument clusters, and vehicle displays. This level of performance creates the potential for significant cost savings, not only in the number of silicon chips, but at the board level as well.

Using a powerful SOC, a single board can replace three that were traditionally used the car. Existing, and soon-to-be released processors, can meet the processing requirements of all but the most computationally intensive systems. At CES, BlackBerry QNX demonstrated this reality, with a digital cockpit run off a single Intel Atom A3900 series processor (more on processors is below).

2. The Foundational Software

The fundamental challenge facing digital cockpit architecture involves meeting functional safety requirements for the digital instrument cluster. Certifying the entire cockpit is one possibility– one that is less than ideal. Such a brute force approach would increase both cost and time-to-market.

A more elegant solution would be to isolate the cluster, allowing certification of the cluster component without having to certify the rest of the system. This action can be accomplished using hypervisor software. The hypervisor software allows the cluster, infotainment, and heads up display (HUD) system to  each run as fully-independent virtual machines. This isolation between systems that all share the same SOC via the Hypervisor allows the cluster to be treated as a stand-alone system and certified separately. The Hypervisor ensures that if the infotainment system or HUD system crash, for whatever reason, the cluster will not crash.

Safety is a key variable for a cluster. However, it is equally important that on-screen rendering is done properly. Imagine, for example, if the cluster renders a ‘P’ for park instead of an ‘R’ for reverse. The consequences could be catastrophic. This capability is handled by QNX’s digital instrument cluster platform using a graphics monitor.

Today we’re announcing the second generation of our hypervisor, called QNX Hypervisor 2.0. Built on BlackBerry QNX’s most advanced and secure 64-bit embedded operating system (QNX SDP 7.0), QNX Hypervisor 2.0 improves the ability for developers to partition and isolate safety-critical environments from non-safety critical ones, ensuring no critical systems are put at risk.

“There is no safety without security,” said John Wall, senior vice president and head of BlackBerry QNX, in a press release. “If hackers can access a car through a non-critical ECU system, they can tamper or take over safety-critical areas, such as the steering system, brakes or engine. BlackBerry’s QNX Hypervisor 2.0 safeguards against these types of attacks and is a key component of our multi-level approach to securing connected and autonomous vehicles.”

3. The Experience

All the technology in the world will not make up for a poor user experience. It is not enough to have multiple screens in the car; those screens need to work in tandem.

Cluster, head unit, infotainment, and entertainment screens are all part of a new digital user experience. These parts cannot be discrete systems developed in isolation. Instead, the components must be viewed from an overall User Interface/User Experience (UI/UX) perspective as a single canvas – the digital cockpit.

The creative component is not the only consideration. Care must be given to address overarching safety requirements. Safety-critical elements such as brake system warnings and air bags must be rendered accurately, and certification is a priority.

The Role of BlackBerry in the QNX Dashboard

As described above, all three key elements, the SoC, the foundational software, and the driver experience must be carefully selected to achieve a compelling digital cockpit.

BlackBerry QNX and Rightware demonstrated how such a digital cockpit may look in reality. Using Intel’s A3900 SOC, Rightware developed a digital instrument cluster that leverages the QNX Hypervisor, Digital Instrument Cluster Platform (QPIC) and QNX Car Infotainment platform (QNX car); both platforms running on QNX operating system. This cluster platform and the QNX CAR Infotainment Platform run on QNX Hypervisor as independent virtual machines.

Qualcomm Technologies is also adopting QNX Hypervisor 2.0 on its high-performance Snapdragon 820Am SoC as part of certain digital cockpit solutions. This is available for automakers to evaluate today.

This is an exciting time in the automotive industry. The digital cockpit has arrived, bringing cost savings and a better user experience.

These, and future advancements, will further shift how drivers will interact with their cars, ultimately, in ways never imagined.

Today’s vehicles are computers on wheels—with over 100 million lines of software per car. Like computers, they will need to be protected. Click here to see how BlackBerry can help make your vehicle BlackBerry Secure.

Romain Saha

About Romain Saha

Romain Saha is the Strategic Alliances Manager at Blackberry QNX.