Redmond, WA--More than two decades ago, the founder of a major minicomputer company flatly stated that "there is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home." Imagine what he might have said if he'd heard about Microsoft's latest project.
Together with the Clarion Corp., the Washington-based software giant has announced the availability of a personal computer that slides into a car's dashboard, replacing the factory installed radio. Known as the Auto PC, it debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
The device, however, is more than a glitzy show item: Several automakers are gearing up to put it in production vehicles by the 2001 model year--a little more than two years from now. Ford's Visteon unit and GM's Delphi Automotive Systems have both rolled out prototype PC-equipped vehicles.
Eyes on the road. Although many automobile owners are sure to view the automotive PC as little more than an expensive curiosity, engineers have developed applications that make sense for drivers. Key to the development of the concept is the use of speech recognition and text-to-speech software. Such software enables users to talk to the computer, and vice versa. "The eyes-on-the-road, hands-on-the-wheel concept is very critical to us," says Bruce Rohn, a staff development engineer for Delphi Delco Electronic Systems, which installed a prototype system in a Saab vehicle. "So as you go through your applications, it's talking to you, and all you have to do is listen and talk back."
The Auto PC consists of two primary parts: the PC hardware from Clarion Corp. and Microsoft's Windows CE software platform.
The hardware barely resembles home PC hardware. The system's enclosure measures a scant five inches high by seven inches wide by six inches deep. Gone are the conventional space gobblers, such as the hard drive, floppy drive, keyboard, mouse, and printer port. Instead of a hard drive, the system uses 8 Mbytes of random access memory (RAM) to run programs. The Windows CE operating system is stored in an 8 Mbyte read-only memory (ROM).
The unit also contains some very un-PC-like hardware. Since it is designed to replace a conventional car radio, the Auto PC contains its own radio tuner, along with a CD-ROM player. Instead of a bulky monitor, it employs a tiny 256 X 64 pixel display in the dashboard.
Operating the system in this way is better for the Auto PC for three reasons. It dramatically reduces the size of the computer, makes it more reliable, and cuts its cost. That's because cars, unlike desktops, vibrate, hit bumps, and dissipate heat. Today's hard drives and floppy drives are not made for such conditions, engineers say.
Arguably, however, the most important advantage of the design may be its cost, which is expected to hover around the $1,000 mark. "For most automobiles, a $2,000 computer would be an awfully expensive option," notes Perry Lee, product manager for Microsoft's Auto PC platform. "So we put in only the components that are necessary for the vehicle's applications. That's how we keep the retail cost of the platform low."
Engineering challenges. For engineers at the auto companies, the prime challenge associated with the Auto PC is in integrating it--not only in a physical sense, but with the car's serial communications bus, as well. Microsoft promotes the Universal Serial Bus (USB) as part of its Auto PC platform, but the company's engineers say that it can be easily integrated with Controller Area Networks, or CAN buses, now used on many upscale cars.
At Delco Electronic Systems, design engineers took just two months to integrate the prototype system into a Saab with an existing CAN bus. The end result: A system that incorporated all the advertised features of the Auto PC, as well a few of its own. Among those:
- Remote diagnostics capabilities that would enable service departments to diagnose automotive maladies via cellular modem, while the car is parked in its driveway.
- A so-called "black box flight recorder," which would record driving data from the CAN bus and store it for later use by mechanics.
- E-mail retrieval, in which the computer would not only retrieve the e-mail, but would read it out loud by employing the text-to-speech engine.
- Simple turn-by-turn navigation via a trunk-mounted GPS unit;
- Internet access through the cellular modem link. The system would draw text from an online service provider, then read it aloud to the driver.
- Control of the AM/FM stereo radio and its volume.
The ability to perform such diagnostics may eventually make the Auto PC a candidate for off-highway vehicles, such as construction and agricultural equipment. Many of those machines now use serial buses, thus enabling them to share data with a PC.
Most of the features available through the Auto PC could also have been performed discretely, by dedicated microcontrollers, rather than by a single computer. But automotive engineers say the new technique is far superior. "To use a bunch of discrete boxes, then have to wire them together, would have been very difficult and much more costly," Rohn says.
Such fiscal realities, combined with the relative ease of integration, are a sign that the Auto PC is destined for some level of industry acceptance, say engineers. Long range success of the project, however, is up to the market. "We've demonstrated that it can be done," Rohn says. "It's here now and its time has come."
What this means to you
- Auto PCs are relatively easily integrated into automotive serial buses
- Auto PCs offer potential for remote vehicle diagnostics
- Vehicle PCs could eventually work for agricultural and constrcution equipment, which often employ CAN buses