GitHub Wants Software for Autos to be More Open, Collaborative

Now that it’s clear automakers plan to take autonomous vehicles and mobility platforms to market in the near future, the industry is undergoing a transformation that, earlier this year, a General Motors executive described as being like cramming 50 years of technical advancement into five.

With these changes comes a significant need for talented young software developers who understand the computing concepts and languages that underpin these technologies. (Mobility, in the context of the auto industry, refers not to mobile phones or wheelchairs, but to non-ownership models such as ridesharing, carsharing, and multi-modal transportation.)

The auto industry’s sprawling legacy corporations, which traditionally thought of themselves simply as designers and manufacturers, are now being forced by customer expectations and changing market needs to adapt. Smartphones have led consumers to expect faster production cycles, unlimited connectivity, and other features that call for expertise in new areas like artificial intelligence, data science, and machine learning. If you’re an aging auto executive, how to you rally your IT team to embrace the coming changes?

Matthew McCullough, director of field services at GitHub, has some suggestions. GitHub is an online community and code repository popular with software engineers. The site follows open-source protocols, allowing its more than 15 million users to discover, implement, and contribute code while collaborating with other developers. GitHub also has an enterprise version that is already being used by NASA, PayPal, Ford, and other corporations hoping to streamline and modernize some of the work being done by their technical teams.

“Software has been in automobiles for more than a decade—this isn’t new,” McCullough said. “At GitHub, we’re highlighting what works for all industries. Open source can also be a template for automotive best practices.” Ford, for example, has begun to use GitHub to gradually modernize the way it tackles software development, which has resulted in “an amazingly fast transformation,” McCullough said. Especially at enterprise scale, he added, Ford’s faster, more collaborative approach has allowed the company’s software engineers to be more innovative by incorporating agile development practices—no doubt a foreign concept, initially, for a company used to five-year production cycles.

McCullough is an advocate of InnerSource, a methodology pioneered by PayPal that involves open-source, collaborative software development from within a company. According to the book titled “Getting Started with InnerSource,” PayPal’s path to InnerSource involved a series of large-scale corporate decisions that included a conscious shift in tools and corporate culture: “Through InnerSource, the company not only achieved faster development and better quality, but also created an environment of cross-team cooperation that encouraged programmers to contribute to any of PayPal’s development projects.”

Rapid product release cycles like the ones seen in the consumer electronics industry —which the auto industry is now trying, to some degree, to emulate—are not to be confused with cranking out cheap, low-quality technology, McCullough said.

“The idea is to break problems into smaller pieces and reduce duplications,” he explained. “It’s about communication and peer review; as we build systems, if there’s no dictionary to check if it’s been done before, people with good intentions end up rebuilding it. With GitHub and InnerSource, components are tested by many, which gets products to market sooner. It’s kind of like a pyramid: when the base changes, things above it change.”

McCullough believes that 10 years from now, we’ll see wide corporate adoption of InnerSource’s principles, perhaps especially in the auto industry. For one thing, he said, the kind of boundary-free collaboration InnerSource cultivates is exactly the approach needed in the auto industry at a time when there’s such intense competition for talented software engineers, many of whom live outside the U.S..

However, the idea of unfettered collaboration, especially cross-industry, likely makes old-school automotive employees—who cut their teeth in an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia around protecting trade secrets—extremely nervous. McCullough said that’s outdated thinking.

“People in the auto industry may feel like they can get a leg up if they don’t tell anyone what they’re working on,” he said. “But if there’s sharing, the process of finding bugs and getting things to market is easier. The aim is to normalize this approach, but it requires companies to lean on their software development talent, and that’s huge. That’s probably harder than the intellectual property or process pieces.”

Automotive executives who are struggling to adapt to an open environment should look to Apple’s Tim Cook for inspiration, McCullough said. (After all, he pointed out, if there’s any company more insular and secretive than car manufacturers, it’s Apple.)

At an Apple developer’s conference event on June 13, Cook talked about Swift, the open-source programming language for the company’s operating systems that can be used to create apps. Since releasing Swift a little under two years ago to third-party developers, Cook told the crowd, Apple has seen “an amazing response.” More than 100,000 iOS apps use Swift, and it is now the top language project on GitHub.

Because Swift is open source and easy to learn, it can bring more people into coding, Cook said. To further that goal, Apple is releasing Swift Playground, a free learning platform that teaches kids to code. Apple is also opening up Siri, Maps, and Messages to third-party development.

“It’s cool to see executives care about open-source software,” McCullough said. “The Linux Foundation is equally passionate about open source as GitHub, but they want to fully open it. We’re of the mindset that you can also build a private intellectual propertylayer.”

McCullough said Linux and GitHub have a “10 percent philosophical difference”—which GitHub hopes the auto industry will find more palatable as it takes on the challenge of building autonomous vehicles.

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