Seven years after debuting exclusively as a luxury feature in high-end cars, the hard disk drive is gaining traction in a broader swath of the automotive market.
Hard drive numbers are now growing about 20 percent annually, from about 3.5 million devices in 2006 to 9.3 million by 2011, says market analyst IDC. Electronics industry executives expect the market to keep growing, mainly as a result of increasing consumer demand for in-vehicle music libraries and three-dimensional navigation systems, both of which will feature more storage space.
“There isn’t a major auto company that we are not working with on at least one project,” notes Rob Pait, director of global marketing for Seagate Technology, LLC.
Experts say that the use of automotive hard drives is growing faster in Japan, where more than 90 percent of vehicles use navigation systems. Such systems are especially important there, where sequential address numbering isn’t always used and therefore GPS-based navigation is fulfilling a growing need. Moreover, Japanese navigation databases are bigger than those in North America, making extra data storage more important. Experts say that Japanese databases are typically sized at about 12 Gbytes, whereas all of the United States and Canada can be stored in about 3.5-4 Gbytes.
Hard drive makers estimate that about 60 percent of new Japanese vehicles are sold with hard drives. All are offered with a hard disk drive option, compared to only about 20 percent in the U.S.
What’s more, three-dimensional, birds-eye-type navigation is expected to reach many vehicles in the next four to five years, bringing a demand for an additional 30- to 40-percent increase in digital storage. For that reason, experts expect the next generation of automotive hard disk drives to increase their storage capacity, especially in Japan.
“There’s huge market penetration in Japan for this technology,” says Scott Wright, product manager for the Toshiba Storage Division, which makes automotive hard drives. “And now it’s flowing over into commercial vehicles and taxis.”
Rolling Entertainment Center
The demand for hard drives, however, is now spreading beyond the needs of the navigation market. Increasingly, car buyers say they want to outfit their new vehicles with music libraries and, in some cases, movie databases.
“The automobile is becoming like a living room, especially as we all spend more time on the road,” Pait says.
The demand for rolling entertainment puts pressure on suppliers to squeeze more capacity into the drives, since a standard-definition movie takes up about 6 Gbytes by itself. With some music libraries exceeding 10 Gbytes in size, electronics engineers believe that today’s 30- and 40-Gbyte hard disk drives won’t be able to do the job in the future.
That’s why Toshiba and Seagate have recently rolled out 2.5-inch-diameter, 80-Gbyte drives, which are expected to be available as an option on showroom floors by 2010.
“Our customers have been asking for more storage space,” Wright says. “The move to 80 Gbytes is a response to the requests coming from the automotive industry.”
The single-platter, 80-Gbyte hard drives lag behind the storage capabilities of notebook computers, which have already reached 120 to 160 Gbytes, with 250 Gbytes looming on the horizon. Still, they offer technology unavailable in notebook computer drives, especially in terms of ruggedization. Seagate’s new EE25.2 Series, for example, offers an operating temperature range of -30°C to +85°C. Similarly, Toshiba’s new 80-Gbyte MK8050GAC, released in December, features an altitude specification of 5,500 m. Engineers at competing companies, including Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, Inc. and Fujitsu Computer Products of America, are working hard on fluid dynamic bearing motors and other technologies to ruggedize the drives. Moreover, all of the manufacturers are developing new technologies to help drives withstand the vibration and impact that go with automotive use.
“It’s not so much about shock,” Wright says. “In automotive applications, it’s more about vibration. We spend a lot of time making the systems tolerant to vibration.”
Seagate says its automotive-grade hard drives incorporate computational abilities that enable them to compensate for vibration. The drives are even able to discern a phenomenon loosely defined as “slow shock,” in which one wheel or axle of a vehicle may be descending into a pothole.
“The drive is actually able to sense when it is about to hit a pothole,” says Pait of Seagate. “Once it has sensed that the shock is coming, it moves the heads away from the media.”
A Need for Storage
Still, the growing abilities of automotive hard drives don’t ensure future success. Competitors have cropped up the last few years, most notably the cartridge-style hard drives that mount in a vehicle’s trunk or ceiling, as well as the ubiquitous iPod.
PhatNoise Inc., for example, offers a wallet-sized hard drive cartridge that mounts in an overhead entertainment system and holds “thousands of songs, hours of video and hundreds of games,” the company says. Its technology has appeared in GM vehicles, including the Chevy Uplander and Saturn Relay, for several years.
Experts say, however, that the biggest challenge to traditional disk drives will come from the mighty iPod.
“I’ve never seen so much infrastructure built around one device,” says Reinsel of IDC. “If the iPod continues to evolve, consumers could start asking, ‘Why not carry movies from the iPod and play them in my car?’”
Even if that happens, though, hard drive use in autos will be considered a safe bet for the foreseeable future.
“Auto companies are going to use hard drives for black box applications and text-to-speech, as well as navigation systems,” Pait says. “People are going to want more storage in their cars going forward.”