Saab IQon and Linux: when Open Source isn’t Open, and your car isn’t really yours

(update from Saab on 2011/03/10 available at the bottom)
Car maker Saab recently announced that it will use Android, a version for mobile devices of the “Free as in Freedom” Linux operating system, for its in-car entertainment and information system, the IQon.

IQon will do many things, including “audio and entertainment streaming, on-board music storage and online navigation”, thanks to a built-in modem that “automatically connects to the Internet when the vehicle’s owner switches on the ignition”. It looks like IQon will also enable remote communications between vehicle and dealerships (what will be the first car to call the dealer and schedule its check-up all by itself, then drive you there that day even if you had other plans? That’s still unclear).

That’s because IQon isn’t only about entertainment. It can also collect information about the status of the car and of its driver through hundreds of sensors that measure everything from speed to the position of the sun and the driver’s workload. Whatever that means.

Finally, Saab will make available to interested programmers all the information they’ll need to develop software for the IQon platform. And here, according to what I’ve read so far, is where the trap may be.

It is possible, not to say very, very likely, that this freedom (not just for programmers, also for drivers) is only an illusion, unless one hacks the system in ways that require not common skills and would surely void any warrantee anyway.
It is very likely, that is, that drivers (that is, very frequently, the people who paid to own that car) will be allowed to load on the IQon only the software applications previously approved by Saab, and made available on the Saab/IQon online store. Basically, the same model made popular by iPhone and iPad, even if based on an Open Source, “Free as in Freedom” operating system.

And this brings us to the real question (not a new one, but IQon is a good example of why it’s important): sure, it uses Android, which is more or less Linux, which is Open Source, which is “Free as in Freedom”, but… can you call “yours” a car that you aren’t free to customize as you damn please (respecting safety laws and regulations, of course) even if you regularly bought? it

Of course, there’s nothing special in Saab’s policy. They’re certainly not the first company that “sells” products that turn out to not be really yours after all, because the can be used only as that company likes. Have you ever looked at how Blu-Ray is managed?

Update: for several reasons I couldn’t post it here immediately, but on 2011/03/10 I got this message from Saab:

Hi Marco,

Thanks for your inquiry. To answer your question: we just started up with the
process of establishing guidelines and policies for the developers community.
We plan to launch the toolkit in May and the finished product will be on the
market next autumn. We would be very happy to comment on the issues you refer
to once we have established the settings for the AppShop and also actually have
seen what the developer community is developing.

Kind regards,

Jeroen Demmendaal
Project Manager News & Corporate
Global Communications
Saab Automobile AB

22 thoughts on “Saab IQon and Linux: when Open Source isn’t Open, and your car isn’t really yours”

  1. In Android only the kernel is licensed as GPL, the rest of the system has an Apache 2.0-license, which means it absolutely fine to make proprietary systems from it.

  2. lets say u hack the system and somehow in your infinite wisdom you managed to mess up the antilock brakes. What now? Saab should fix it for free? under warranty? Use their dealership manhours to fix your screwup? Seriously. If you sold a product that came with Linux and the end user hosed it up are u expected to fix it under Warranty? really?

    I am all for free and the ability to hack to our heart’s content. But I think manufactures should be allowed to void a warranty if you go in and screw something up that you have no business messing with in the first place. They cannot be expected to pay shop labor to fix your infotainment system because u decided to hack it.

    1. Andydread,

      1) I am against letting people build their own cars just for the same kind of reasons that you mention “messing up the antilock brakes”, and I already said it in Hacking the non digital commons is a lot more complicated than Free Software. So I certainly do NOT think that if one mess with car brakes the dealership should fix them under warranty. But, as I understand it, this is about just looking at sensors, not messing with the hardware or with safety in general. If I want to have a different or extra on display warning when there is a problem with the brakes, should the related hack void the

      2) I agree that manufactures should be allowed to void a warranty if you go in and screw something up. But this is about something else. This is about having the possibility to free to “customize as you damn please (respecting safety laws and regulations, of course)” what’s yours. Please note I explicitly excluded anything that messes with safety and law. If I want to install a different web browser on the IQon, this is like installing a different car radio. Why should I be not allowed at all to do it, via technical DRM-like tricks?

      1. And here is one place where you go very, very wrong. Hobbyists DO build their own cars from the ground up. Heck, they build their own airplanes! Are these kinds of hobbies easy? No, but they are clearly well within reach of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in the U.S. alone.

        The other place that you are way, WAY off base is your automatic assumption that Saab will do the Wrong Thing. Have you bothered to contact them to find out what their stance on software hacking will be? Or, since the average car these days has something like a dozen different microprocessors, have you bothered to find out just what Android will have access to? Did it ever occur to you to think that maybe Saab is bright enough to make sure that all the ancillary entertainment/networking processors really didn’t need to be wired to the anti-lock system?

        You, sir, have a lot to learn about how mechanics and engineers think.

        1. sgtrock,

          I will report what I find directly from Saab, as soon as there is something. In the meantime:

          Are these kinds of hobbies easy? No, but they are clearly well within reach of hundreds of thousands

          that is still a small percentage of car owners. Besides, if my assumption that the required skills are not common is wrong, it makes my main point even stronger: if it’s so easy and it’s harmless, why should it be restricted?

          You, sir, have a lot to learn about how mechanics and engineers think.

          you haven’t read my home page, have you?

          oh, I forgot: what I think about hobbysts building cars from the ground up (which is quite different, safety-wise, from hacking a car entertainment system) is here:

          Non digital commons a lot more complicated than Free Software”

  3. I don’t see the problem. You buy a car, drill holes in the engine for nitro injection, the warranty is invalid. No-one thinks that is odd.

    Sounds like Saab are honouring the gpl, but they are under no obligation to support your private hacks, just what they supplied. Why is that wrong?

    1. Bob,
      please see my answer to Andydread. This is about having the technical possibility to hack the system in ways that do not hurt safety. It’s about being allowed to void the warranty, not about keeping it even if you mess up with the injection, the brakes or everything else.

  4. The idea is a nice step by SAAB.
    I can understand there requirement to approve apps. After all this is a hunk of metal rolling down a road at 100 km/hr.

    I guess the practical question is what the process for getting a hack you do back into the software registry ??
    A really good exampl eis what is you managed to design software to allow a third part garage access all the stored data to allow servicing. This is all to do with how many car brands only allow their “certified” garages work on the car.

    Honda Prius is a good example. But there is a company in the US that spent about 1 million USD writting software to allow them and their dealership service Prius cars.

    So this is a another aspect of this debate i feel. I want the car data open to be used by any car mechanic.

    1. Ged,
      about the requirement to approve apps: see my answers to earlier comments. I think Saab HAS to guarantee safety, that kind of restrictions is OK to me. I want it. I object to limits to other hacks.

      “I want the car data open to be used by any car mechanic”

      Same here. Actually, I’m already preparing a separate article just about this. If you have material or suggestions, please send them to, thanks

  5. Hi

    This issue and dialogue is both interesting and boring. Can’t make up my mind really…
    However, I want to point out that the blogger/writer/…mr Marco has a point but at the same time he misses another one.
    Marco, You want to change the software without voiding the warranty. You want to change something not crucial to the safety. Ok.
    How can You be sure? I mean how can You be 100% sure that the change You make (change some icons, background color…..whatever simple change) will not break the system in a way that makes safety not safe?
    Well, we can all sit here and speculate that, sure no such change should prove fatal to any system that has anything to do with safety….
    Ok, but if it does, as I am not god and I don’t think many of us are – who will take the blame when someones family … whoever is smashed against a mountain wall because some strange thing happened with the cars safety?
    Should SAAB???
    I can gurantee you that no one making hacks to this system will stand up and say “well….eh…I changed the systems sounds … but I never thought this would be a problem”. Thus taking away a part of the responsibility from the car maker.
    This will never ever ever happen! No way!
    SAAB will be there right on the front of any paper, in court, pushed hard to take 100% of the responsibility.
    So I think they are doing the right think – lock that box up tight.
    If they are to be responsible for it (which they are) – they are damn right to void the warranty if someone wants to change settings in it.
    In the end it is all about thier safety.

    1. “I mean how can You be 100% sure that the change You make (change some icons, background color…..whatever simple change) will not break the system in a way that makes safety not safe?”

      maybe I misunderstand your comment. If by “break” you mean that things like changing things like the background color can freeze the system or something like that, then if the software platform of the IQon has such problems I’d never use it even if it ran only Saab-certified software. If by “break” you mean that one writes a program that writes some warning message or icon in the same color as the background, thus making that warning invisible, then I agree with you. My understanding, which may be wrong but is the context in which what I wrote applies, is that the IQon can collect and display sensor information but in a way that is separated by the “real” car dashboard. That one shouldn’t be touched, I agree.

  6. Except this is all purely hypothetical. The system isn’t even in place, much less the approval process of apps that haven’t even been made yet. Take a breath and wait for there to actually be a problem before you start raising alarms.

    1. David,
      as reported in the article I link at the beginning and in telematicsnews and many other places:

      “To ensure high driving safety and quality standards are maintained, these programs will be evaluated and approved by Saab before they are made available to customers”.

      “will”, not “may”.

  7. I would be concerned about another issue: privacy. Since, as the author mentioned, the car has a modem, connects to the Internet and transmits collected data (including GPS info,) would one find that desirable? Would the owner of the car appreciate being tracked? By whom? Govenment? Insurance companies? Jealous spouse? Would it be possible to block such communications? It just feels like an Orwellian invasion of privacy. 1984 anyone?

    1. Sure you can block it. Just find the antenna and remove it or cover it with foil…. Oops, now you have voided the warranty. ..Or even worse; perhaps now the car won’t even start. :)
      If SAAB finds that they are not meeting customer needs, then they will not be selling many cars. If people become spooked about getting in a SAAB for whatever reason, then SAAB business will fail.
      Hopefully they are mulling through these issues and realize that many people, including many people driving cars, do not want to be tracked wherever they go. I for one, will have lots of questions to ask and research to do before I buy my next high-tech automobile or truck. Serviceability, privacy, cost of ownership, warranty terms, etc. will need to be considered. I won’t hesitate to let them know where they went wrong in fulfilling my needs as a consumer should I choose not to buy into their brilliant business and technology plan.

  8. I think you’re going in too strong too soon.

    First of all, if you buy the car it’s yours. Unless you’re in a legally enforceable agreement there’s nothing stopping you from trying to hack it. The thing is, a car is kind of special in the way that we have regulations restricting what it can and can’t do for various reasons.

    Their market model is similar to the one of the iPhone, yes, but unlike the Apple App Store it’s restricted for a good reason and that’s where you have to compromise.

    Let’s say you can put after market body panels on a car, or apps if you will. Those panels most likely won’t do anything they aren’t supposed to and there is little reason to review every single variation, right? Now suppose there is a panel which unintentionally creates lift above a certain speed. That wouldn’t necessarily be an undesired effect for some of the people who bought it (just because you and I can’t see why anyone would want it to a handful of people do). Creating lift through swapping out a panel isn’t illegal, although it’s certainly a stupid idea to fit one of those to your car unless you really know the implications it has on the handling. This is the iPhone style of thinking.

    Now let’s say that very same panel has a flashing blue light. Fitting one of those to your car is very illegal in some countries. But since it’s your car you sure can do this if you really want to and are prepared to take the consequences. This is the Linux way of thinking.

    Unfortunately for us, the Linux way of thinking just isn’t compatible with the iPhone way of thinking and in the real world there are (believe it or not) people incompatible with the Linux way of thinking by nature, they feel that everything you can do with whatever it is you pay for must do everything you tell it to without breaking any laws, software or hardware. In the Linux way of thinking, we want to be able to break stuff because then we don’t get stuck in grayzones of what we can and can’t do.

    This is why SAAB needs to review every app that goes into their cars, whether you like it or not.

    No offense, but the part where you speculate about dealership connectivity just makes you look paranoid.

    1. Hi,
      the part (in parentheses) where I speculate about dealership connectivity was meant to be a joke. Wrt the rest of your comment, it is possible I’m going in too strong too soon in this particular case, but I also wanted to reason about the general trend. As I said, I’ve asked Saab more info and will report here as soon as I have it.

  9. What would be really cool is if the IQON were available for download. Then I could have nice eye candy for the 24′ Dell Inspiron One Ubuntu touchscreen that has confiscated the entire dash of my Mini Cooper. My complaint is that Saab takes open technology builds something cool, and you can only have it if you buy a Saab? Then I could integrate it into the CAN Bus myself and if something goes awry – sue myself. But at least I’m open to it.

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