During the dot com boom, a popular prediction for cars was a vehicle that constantly monitored the Internet, checking for e-mails, providing stock quotes and telling hungry drivers which restaurants were near the next off ramp. That idea bombed, but the view that the car and home should have similar information and entertainment sources hasn't faded.
As drivers spend more time on the road, vehicles are offering more creature comforts than ever before. Both carmakers and their suppliers are racing to make cars a relaxing and productive place. "The idea of the car reading your e-mail to you hasn't happened. Instead, people want to be entertained, having the same experience they have in their homes with iPods, portable video players and other consumer products," says Brian Fortman, automotive infotainment product manager at Texas Instruments.
Signs of this change are everywhere. Kenwood USA of Long Beach, CA, is beginning to ship a 6.1 channel surround sound system that will play DVDs, MP3s, Sirius satellite and HD radio based on the Circle Surround Automotive technology from SRS Labs Inc. of Santa Ana, CA. Earlier this year, Delphi Corp. of Troy, MI, sold its 5 millionth satellite radio receiver, noting that annual sales levels have risen steadily since the first models rolled out in 2001.
While consumers want to carry MP3s, TV, DVDs, Bluetooth phones and iPods from their homes into vehicles that are increasingly offering navigation, digital and satellite radio and even Internet links, there are a number of challenges for designers.
Though consumer technologies are going mobile, design engineers note that there's a big difference between the consumer and automotive markets. Few consumer products last 10 or more years that most cars are on the road.
"We can take our consumer parts and put them in the car, but first we have to make the parts robust enough," says Peter Schulmeyer, director of strategy and marketing for Freescale Transportation and Standard Products Group, headquartered in Austin, TX.
One challenge is that there simply isn't enough room for multiple devices.
That's created a shift to what's called a radio head unit, which employs multiple functions. Aftermarket suppliers are already offering hardware that blends many functions.
"Head units with computing capabilities, large hard drives and even Internet access can help aftermarket vendors distinguish their products from the stock components that come with a vehicle," says Senior Analyst Dan Benjamin of ABI Research in Oyster Bay, NY.
Most predict that navigation and radios will no longer be housed in separate boxes. "You won't see many standalone navigation systems any more," Fortman says.
Consumers also need a way to move their music and other personal data into the vehicle. One simple method is the USB flash drives that are being used throughout the computer field.
This gives consumers easy access while also giving them the flexibility to buy the capacity-size products they need. "USB is very, very beneficial. You'll certainly be seeing USB products from Visteon in the near future," says Nick DiFiore, senior manager of electronics at Visteon Corp. of Van Buren Towhship, MI.
Ken Chance, infotainment solutions business development manager at Siemens VDO of MI, predicts that "USB will be- come a standard except on low-end vehicles."
However, USB drives can't currently store a movie or TV show, so wireless links are being considered. Wi-Fi offers the speed, but its short range limits it to the home or a gas station. Trucking companies are already using Wi-Fi. "802.11 has penetrated the enterprise. A large shipping company is looking at it to monitor loads and for diagnostics. When the truck comes in, they automatically download information so maintenance can be scheduled," says Mo Kapila, transportation business manager at DPAC Technologies of Garden Grove, CA.
Once this data is brought into the vehicle, owners may want to leave it there rather than remember USB drives, iPods or synching up with home systems. The most cost effective approach is the disk drive. "Hard drives are gaining momentum from an integration standpoint, but there are still some concerns about reliability," DiFiore says.
He notes that flash prices are coming down, challenging system designers who must pick the sweet spot for storage capacity a couple years before the vehicle actually ships, knowing that prices and capacities will change dramatically over the decade that most cars are driven.
It's not just technical issues that impact these decisions. Piracy and intellectual property rights are also concerns. "There are a lot of IP issues surrounding music, recorded stories and movies. Once you put them on a USB stick, you can't create a second copy on a hard disk drive," Chance says.
Others note that storing materials in a car can raise long-term questions. "One issue with hard drives is that once you fill it up, how do you get that data out when you sell the car," says Flip Lockhoof, operations manager for Freescale's digital audio and radio business.
When a radio head unit must shift from playing radio to playing a phone call over the vehicle's speakers while routing a new traffic route, there's a growing need for software, often a real-time operating system. Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, WA, doesn't want to be left out of this huge market. Its Windows Automotive 5.0, unveiled this summer, will vie with offerings from several smaller companies.
"You've got products from five to 10 different vendors—voice recognition, echo canceling, Bluetooth, networking, graphics—that all have to come together," says Dan Mender, director of business development at Green Hills Software Inc. of Santa Barbara, CA.
As in all aspects of the auto industry, reliability will be a key issue. A virus from an MP3 player can't bring down other functions. "A lot of Tier 1s are seeing the growth in multimedia technology and Bluetooth phones. They're also looking at warranty issues, so they want to make sure that once they validate some software it will keep running no matter what's added," says Andrew Poliak, Automotive Business Manager at QNX Software Systems in Ottawa, ON, Canada. RTOS vendors are now offering programs that make sure one program doesn't impact others running on the same CPU.
Controlling multiple consumer products, often a difficult job in the home, is critical as vehicles fly down freeways. Most observers feel voice recognition is the safest user interface.
"One of the things that will drive consumer acceptance of telematics is the hands-free phone. Leveraging voice recognition and Bluetooth is critical," says Scott Saari, senior manager of infotainment electronics at Visteon.
Safe and sound
Recognizing voices in the noisy-vehicle environment requires close attention to sound quality. "Traditionally, sound quality tests looked at the tonal changes of a transmission or axle as you went from a stop to 75 mph. But there's a trend towards hands free interfaces, seeing which techniques work best for cleaning up the extraneous background noise," says Gabriella Cerrato Jay, technical director at MTS System Corp.'s software and consulting group of Eden Prairie, MN.
Eliminating those extraneous noises is also necessary for consumers who want to replicate the quality of their home entertainment system on the highway. "It's a big challenge to think about the technologies that make up the acoustic environment in a car and to account for new media and sound sources," Jay adds.
While entertainment is a key push, there's a chance that consumer technologies may make cars safer. Now that cameras are small enough to sit atop many home computers, they're holding the promise of providing smart airbag systems. "We're putting stereo cameras up by the rear view mirror. They can tell the difference between a six-year-old and an adult, and they know where you are so the airbag won't go off if you're picking something up off the floor," says Doug Campbell, vice president, engineering, TRW Occupant Safety Systems of Washington, MI. He adds that once cameras are in the vehicle, they can be used to monitor the driver's eyes for signs of drowsiness.