18, 1998 Design News
PCs next stop: Your dashboard
Big computer firms are working
with auto companies to make a PC for the car
by Charles J. Murray,
Midwest Technical Editor
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
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
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
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
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
Auto PC can be integrated with Controller
Area Networks that link electronic features in
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
Fire-resistant fabrics provide supersonic
by Christine M. Ferrara,
New Products Editor
Atlanta, GA--Andrew Green, Royal Air Force tornado
pilot squadron leader, had a supersonic day last October.
He broke the world land speed record, set in 1984, in
the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, driving 763 mph in
his 54-ft Thrust SSC car. The previous record was 633.468
The extremely hot temperatures of the desert, coupled
with the car's speed, created the potential for fire.
As a consequence, Green himself, the car's interior,
and the fire marshals who stood guard over this venture
required protection. It came in the form of Panotex
fire-resistant fabrics from Lantor Universal Carbon
Fiber's (Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire, England) technical
textiles division. The fabrics are based on the company's
carbon fiber technology.
Panotex fabrics are made of an oxidized fiber which
is 60% carbon. The fiber is spun into yarn and woven
into fabric. The fabric can also be cooked at 1,000C
and turned into carbon fiber, which is approximately
95% carbon, according to Peter Cole, general manager
for Lantor Universal.
Cole says that his company's fabrics are created by
combining diverse fibers with different properties.
"It's often by blending more than one fiber together
and combining their properties that you finish up with
a fabric that performs better than if it were made from
any individual fiber," he says.
The fabrics are also used in a variety of applications
where high protection is needed, Cole adds, including
military jackets, fire fighting equipment, and covers
for bulletproof vests.
"We've pre-burned the Panotex fabric," Cole
says. "If you put a blowtorch against it, it will
glow red, but there is no afterburn."
However, the fabric's exact level of protection depends
on its weight. Panotex P180, used in Green's balaclava,
gloves, and underwear, weighs just 200 gm per sq m.
P211, which is used in his outer safety suit, is heavier
for more protection at 260 gm per sq m. The outer suit
was also treated with a liquid repellent that does not
allow volatile liquids to be absorbed for added protection.
The fire marshals wore the heaviest fabric of all, Panotex
P15, which weighs in at 430 gm per sq m, Cole says.
The challenge in developing fabrics, Cole says, is
that "people want fabric to do everything, such
as fire and abrasion resistance, but be at the same
However, Andrew Green didn't seem to care about how
the fabric would protect him in the event of a crash.
"He was more concerned about what he would look
like in the suit," Cole laughs.
Analog products follow microcontroller
Not everything's going digital. As designers embed microcontrollers
in more and more products, demand is increasing for
analog chips. Reason: Analog circuits convert human
input into digital 1s and 0s that digital circuits can
process. They also take digital output and convert it
back to analog signals that people can understand, such
as audio and video. "We are in the middle of the
second analog revolution," says Pat Brockett, executive
vice president of National Semiconductor's Analog Products
Group. "Analog and mixed-signal are the key technologies
that connect people i