Disk drive manufacturers have longed for the high volumes of the automotive industry, but for years, their reliability kept drives from becoming one of the many digital technologies to invade the auto market. That's beginning to change as years of experience in the rugged notebook market has helped drivemakers improve reliability.
That's auspicious timing, because automotive engineers are beginning to look for more storage space. The comparatively high cost per Mbyte of flash memory is prompting many automotive vendors to covet disk drives to hold the high capacities needed for next generation entertainment consoles. "It's inevitable that there will be a hard drive in every radio, though it's hard to determine when that might happen," says Bob Schumacher, general director of wireless and mobile multimedia at Delphi Automotive Systems of Kokomo, IN (http://rbi.ims.ca/3848-691).
Radios are expected by many to become a hub for in-cabin electronics. High-end dashboards of the near future will hold a DVD player, navigation system, and a CD changer, Schumacher adds. Disk drives will hold MP3s or other digital music and map data, as well as related information on restaurants, hotels and other spots in a region. But that will increase access times over what CD or DVD drives can provide.
Drivemakers are ramping up quickly. Hitachi Global Storage Technologies last year unveiled a 2.5-inch notebook-size drive developed for the auto industry. The Travelstar drive stores 20 Gbytes on a single-disk model that stands 9.5 mm tall (http://rbi.ims.ca/3848-694). That's an effective capacity for automotive suppliers. "Twenty Gbytes is typical. You can put multiple DVDs and 20,000 minutes of music in that," Schumacher notes.
Toshiba Storage Device Division (SDD) of Irvine, CA. is promoting 1.8-inch drives (http://rbi.ims.ca/3848-695). Those compact drives hold from 5 to 40 Gbytes at present.
The 1.8-inch form factor has been around for years, but never really took off. Toshiba feels the auto industry will change that. "We think the 1.8s will outsell the 2-1/2s in this market, moving shipments from hundreds of thousands to millions fairly quickly," says Amy Dalphy, manager of Toshiba SDD's hard disk drive business unit. She adds that the 0.85-inch drives designed for cameras and other portable gear probably won't hit the low price points automakers require.
Toshiba is ramping its production of 1.8-inch drives up to 600,000 units per month in anticipation of 70 million units industry-wide in 2010. The company also makes 2.5-inch drives that go up to 80 Gbytes, storing 40 Gbytes per platter.
At these capacities, flash memory isn't a viable alternative. "If you just want a few hundred Mbytes, flash is the way to go. But when you get into huge amounts of music, the cost of disk drives makes them the best choice," Schumacher says.
As an example, PhatNoise Inc.'s Car Audio System uses Toshiba's 2.5-inch drives to store about 335 hours of MP3 music (http://rbi.ims.ca/3848-696). The Los Angeles, CA company houses the drives in a ruggedized package that can be linked to a PC to download MP3 files, then carried to the auto and linked to the stereo system.