So here’s the scoop: Honda has an HDMI port in its newest infotainment units. Meanwhile, several ultra-small, ultra-cheap computing systems feature HDMI monitor outputs. See where we’re heading with this?
Our friend Aaron Gold (read his stuff at About.com Cars and facebook.com/autonerd) thought the same thing we would have, if placed in his situation. He has a Raspberry Pi developer board that he toys around with as a media streaming device hooked into hisTV at home. RPi, as it’s sometimes called, can run HD video natively via HDMI video output. Because it’s super small — barely bigger than a credit card — and uses so little power, it works out well for that purpose. When he saw a recent Honda Civic he was testing had an HDMI input, the light bulb went off in his head.
Gold said, “I’m like, ‘Well, what can I do with this? What do I have that’s HDMI?’”
Gold said his mind gravitated toward the Raspberry Pi. So, like all inquiring minds, his just had to know. He gave it a try.
“I plugged it in, and it worked. When the car’s in park, there’s enough juice off the USB port to power the Raspberry and a couple of USB items,” he said.
Basically, it not only worked, it worked like a charm. With the Raspberry Pi nestled in the center console below the Honda Civic’s center stack, Gold was able to hook it snugly into the HDMI and USB ports. Just for the sake of trying some experiments, he also tethered a wired keyboard to another USB jack on the tiny computer, then attached a wireless mouse USB dongle to yet another USB jack. The only functionality Gold said he couldn’t figure out in his limited time with the Civic press car was getting the Raspberry Pi somehow tethered to his Android phone for internet connectivity on-the-go.
This approach allowed him to get around the Raspberry PI’s Linux-based operating system and handle computing tasks just as one might if sitting at a desktop computer — albeit one with a really, really small screen, by modern desktop computer standards. He could open programs, do some word processing (though he admitted the small screen vs. high-def resolution of the RPi made text difficult to read unless blown up), and even run media streaming interface RaspBMC, a Raspberry Pi-specific port of XBMC.
“It’s kind of neat. I mean, there are easier ways to do it. You know, there are cars that have complete built-in connectivity, as you know. But that’s the beauty of the Pi, is you can, so why not?” Gold said.
“You could put one of these things in the glovebox,” he theorized.
I love where that train of thought is going. The Raspberry Pi has little to no need for cooling and could be mounted pretty much anywhere out of sight, with a little ingenuity. Getting a homebrew Raspberry Pi interface to be usable while driving would take some finagling, as Gold said the Honda Civic would not show HDMI input unless the car was in Park. But give gearheads and Linux geeks enough time, and they’d figure out a way around that constraint. Once that obstacle is overcome, the sky’s the limit. (Insert obligatory safety warnings about not streaming movies while driving here.)
While Gold’s setup was only a quick exercise he said he undertook mostly to prove he could do it, it opens the door to some serious possibilities.
“Pretty much anything you can do on a small desktop setup, you can do on this thing,” Gold said.
With the major auto manufacturers getting ready to accept ever more open-source infotainment content as they line up behind either Apple CarPlay or Android interfaces, microcomputers like the Raspberry Pi might be at the bleeding edge of the trend.
Even as Android makes its way into the car, you can bet Google and the Open Automotive Alliance partners will be hedging their liability by exercising some level of control — probably much tighter than the control placed on Android phone and tablet apps, if we’re honest — over what kinds of apps and app functionalities are allowed for the in-car Android experience. A fully open-source, open-development Linux OS would face no such constraints. The tiny, $35-or-less Raspberry Pi could hold the key to a completely community-funded, third-party-developed in-car infotainment environment.
In that sense, cheap, system-on-chip computers like the Raspberry Pi could be the gateway that leads to Linux being the true “third way” in automotive infotainment just as it has been for personal computing for a long time — a solution that doesn’t tie the user to corporate interests or limitations. If end users and 12-volt retailers aren’t excited about the possibilities of these systems, they’re not dreaming big enough.