Jeans, blue hoodie, laptop plastered full of multi-colored stickers: We are visiting Oliver Hartkopp, IT specialist and expert for Open Source software within the Volkswagen Group. Open Source? At Volkswagen? “That used to be unthinkable, but a paradigm shift is now taking place,” explains Hartkopp. To put it simply, Open Source means software that can be downloaded and used free of charge from the internet. The advantage: you don’t have to write new code yourself for every small problem. If someone else has already solved a similar problem, why not use that existing solution? Of course, this is interesting for all software-driven companies – including Volkswagen.
Unlike freeware, however, users cannot do what they want with Open Source software. “The code comes with a license – and an entire culture,” explains the expert. More than 200 different licenses regulate what an Open Source code may be used for. Some are very liberal, others very restrictive. For example, there are licenses that, in the case of a car sale, require the seller to show the buyer which software is used in the navigation system, for example. Sometimes the license conditions are so strange that the software cannot be used in an industrial environment: “There is even a chicken dance license: If a company uses the code with this license, the CEO has to upload a video to Youtube on which they have to perform the chicken dance,” reports Hartkopp.
“I’m kind of a missioner”
But the anecdote shows what Volkswagen is dealing with here: It is more than just another approach to software development. Oliver Hartkopp: “Technology, strategy, processes – Open Source is a huge topic. My job is to anchor it at Volkswagen.” How exactly? Hartkopp organizes workshops, gives training courses for developers together with the legal department, is often in contact with colleagues from the Group’s brands via Skype conferences and gives lectures. “I’m kind of a missioner.”
His goal: to explain to as many colleagues as possible where the strategic advantages lie, but also to point the challenges out. Because: “Open Source doesn’t just mean consuming, you also have to contribute something.” So anyone who uses code from the community and develops it further will of course upload the results again later. For example on Github, a kind of “Facebook for Open Source developers,” as Hartkopp describes it.
Fascination of rolling computers
Oliver Hartkopp is 52 years old. Born in the German town of Peine, the computer scientist with a doctorate has worked for the Volkswagen Group for more than 20 years. He has always been interested in the combination of bits, bytes and vehicle technology: “When I was little, I wanted to do something with cars and computers. Not many people can claim to be able to make their childhood dreams come true.” Today the car is a rolling computer: “That’s a pure fascination for me.”
Since the early 1990s, Hartkopp has been intensively involved with Open Source and the open operating system Linux in his private life. A few years ago, he had the opportunity to work in the field: in corporate research, he had a lot to do with building prototypes. In order to be able to access the CAN bus (Controller Area Network) based steering solutions, Volkswagen always purchased new systems from new suppliers. For Hartkopp this was incomprehensible. He searched the Open Source community, consulted with a colleague, and in 2003 began programming an extension for the Linux operating system himself, with which it is now possible to access the CAN bus via standardized interfaces – regardless of the CAN bus hardware used.
INFOBOX CAN Bus
A bus is a system for data transmission between several participants via a common transmission path. All components are connected to a common data line via short spur lines. This minimizes the cabling effort. However, the data flow must be controlled via an access procedure (protocol) if all components use a common bus line. The Controller Area Network (CAN) connects several equal components via a 2-wire bus. The CAN protocol was developed by Bosch in 1983 for use in motor vehicles and first presented to the public in 1986.
The tools initially used and developed, as well as the extensions to the Linux operating system, were then published by Volkswagen as Open Source in 2006. The project, further developed by the Open Source Community under the name SocketCAN, has been an integral part of the Linux operating system since the beginning of 2008. Since then, Oliver Hartkopp has been responsible for more than 6,000 lines of code in the Linux kernel – the “core” of the Linux operating system.
What you can do with SocketCAN, for example, he demonstrates with a blue Volkswagen Golf, in which a Linux computer controls the complete vehicle networking. The computer, made up of standard hardware, processes and distributes over 22,000 messages per second in the rolling laboratory vehicle. Hartkopp pulls his Android Tablet out of his pocket and turns a digital steering wheel that can be seen on the display: the steering wheel of the Golf and the front wheels move simultaneously. This is just one of several functions that the Linux computer controlled via the tab can implement in the boot. More than 25 million lines of code came from the community and only about 2,000 lines he had to contribute himself. “Standard software and a little fairy dust,” as Hartkopp puts it.
By the way, “SocketCAN” does not only run on the test vehicle on display and in automotive development departments within and outside the Group: some fish trawlers on the Atlantic, heavy-duty cranes in the port of Hamburg, the CERN nuclear research facility in Geneva and a scientific institute in Novosibirsk also use the software, which had its origins in Volkswagen Group research. Linux and the globally networked community make it possible.
Training for Open Source enablers
Using Open Source at Volkswagen is one thing, making Open Source available and further developing it together with the community is quite another. “That’s why we at Volkswagen have developed processes and training courses to train Open Source enablers.” At present, there are around 50 of them. They can now work actively in ‘Open Source Communities’ on behalf of Volkswagen and, under certain conditions, also contribute code. “That’s the exciting thing: To bring the completely different idea of Open Source into the company and to create the conditions for it.”
More information on the new Car.Software unit
The Volkswagen Group intends to bundle more than 10,000 digital experts within the new “Car.Software” unit, with Group responsibility for software in the vehicle by 2025. The company plans to develop significantly more software in the car and for vehicle-related services itself and to increase its own share from less than 10 percent today to at least 60 percent by 2025.
In the future, there will be a uniform software platform with all basic functions throughout the Group: in five areas. These include development work on a uniform vehicle operating system “vw.os” for all Group vehicles and its connection to the Volkswagen Automotive Cloud, a standardized infotainment platform, all assistance systems through to highly automated driving and parking in end-customer vehicles, software functions for connecting drive, chassis and charging technology, as well as ecosystems for all mobility services and digital business models of the brands.
The computer scientist warmly welcomes the fact that in future IT experts at Volkswagen will be bundled in a new “Car.Software” unit. This makes Open Source all the more important. “The Car.Software organization is a great thing because we can then approach our work 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.”
In addition, the new unit and the use of Open Source will make Volkswagen a much more attractive employer for software developers. “If we go from ‘We buy everything’ to ‘We do more ourselves’, we will automatically attract more people who are familiar with software”. For software specialists, exciting times are dawning at Volkswagen. “I also think it’s really exciting about my job that I can be a pioneer in shaping this new culture here at Volkswagen,” says Hartkopp: “Volkswagen is simply a cool company.”