Listen to the Music

March 19, 2007

9 Min Read
Listen to the Music

When you think of high-performance audio in vehicles, the well-known luxury vehicle brands come to mind. Carmakers have not abandoned their efforts in these vehicles, but are paying more attention to improving the audio systems in the rest of the fleet. The newest units allow drivers and passengers to easily integrate consumer electronics products into the vehicles. To enable this capability, automakers face a number of design challenges including the requirement for the vehicle-based hardware and software to meet the same reliability as other vehicle systems. Detroit's Big Three have met the challenges head on.


K. Venkatesh Prasad, group and technical leader with Ford's Infotronics Research and Advanced Engineering department, describes the emerging use of consumer electronics in vehicles as “built-in, brought-in and beamed-in.” To have an architecture with the flexibility to cope with the ever-changing consumer electronics in the 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty automotive world, Ford teamed up with Microsoft to develop Sync. According to Derrick Kuzak, group vice president, product development, Ford Motor Co., Sync offers hands-free phone operation and iPod, Zune or MP3 player connectivity and is built on an upgradeable software platform that will allow Ford to offer new features by simply upgrading the software.

Ford's built-in system is based on Microsoft Auto software. The technology gives users the capability to interface existing and future portable devices through an industry-standard Bluetooth wireless connection or USB 2.0 port. The USB interface allows command and control of digital devices, as well as charging. In addition to radio or steering wheel-based control, the system accepts voice commands. The integrated voice-activated technology debuts on 12 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products in 2007 and will soon be offered on all vehicles in these families. When the software for Sync is updated, customers will be able to download the latest version, either from a website or from a Ford or Lincoln-Mercury dealer.

The biggest challenge of getting the Sync designed into the vehicle was the difference in development time schedules. “It takes us the better part of three years from concept to showroom for a car, but customers are going through cell phones and other kinds of consumer electronic devices in 12 to 18 months,” says Gary Jablonski, manager of infotainment systems, Ford Motor Co., and leader of the Sync development team.

Ford's traditional approach for designing electronics was on the same cadence as the rest of the vehicle. “That virtually meant by the time the car hit the showroom, the technology in it was outdated,” says Jablonksi. Sync represents a change in developing electronics separate from a vehicle program. Compared to a normal automotive project, the technology was developed on a very compressed time schedule and more in line with the time schedule for consumer electronics. The Sync project was executed on a short time schedule using a specially assembled team operating on its own timeframe. “The technology is being merged with the vehicles really at the last minute,” says Jablonksi.

In addition to the flexibility of working with several digital media players and cell phones, Sync had to be easy to use. “In our research, the message that we got loud and clear is drivers want simple solutions for communication, information, entertainment and navigation in the car,” says Velle Kolde, product manager for In-Vehicle Systems, Microsoft. The goal for the Sync design was an easy, safe and convenient interface to brought-in electronics. The hardware in the Sync platform is based on a Microsoft reference design.

When the media device is connected, Sync performs a fast indexing of all the metadata on the device and the system produces phonetic interpretations of all the song titles and artist names. A similar conversion is made with the phone book from a mobile phone. The user does not have to personally enter the voice tags. “You just connect your phone, the synchronization happens and then you can start giving it voice commands,” says Kolde.

An iPod First

Ford's Sync is the latest approach to bringing in consumer electronics, but other carmakers have had systems on the market for more than a year or more. Early in 2006, the Chrysler Group's Mopar parts division introduced iPod Integration Kits for Chrysler Group vehicles. The vehicle's audio sound system provides access to the iPod's control functions, in some cases with the option to browse through steering wheel controls. The kit certainly simplifies accessing personalized music in the vehicle.

Kathy Hammer, engineering supervisor for Mopar interior and electrical accessories says, “We were the first domestic OEM to work with Apple to develop an iPod integration kit that would seamlessly integrate the operation of the iPod through the vehicle head unit.” Mopar released the first generation of iPod adapters at the beginning of 2006 and recently expanded the system's availability across most of Chrysler's vehicle line. As an integral part of a car company, Mopar developed a kit that takes into account the carmaker's concerns for added components that could interfere with other vehicle systems.

“All of our iPod adapters have been validated to our Chrysler specifications, which means that we did work with Core Engineering to develop a full DVP (Design Validation Process), which the product has been designed and tested to,” says Hammer. The iPod adapters have gone through the same rigorous testing as the other electronics in the passenger compartment.

Reliability testing was just one difficult aspect of design process. “The technical challenges were obviously in providing the domestic and fully integrated iPod adapters for interface with both of our bus systems,” says Hammer. The integration with the J1850 or CAN bus presented software challenges. To have effective communications with the vehicle bus while not causing any disruption to other systems, the radio gateway isolates the unit from the rest of the vehicle's systems

Connectivity Issues

While not as sophisticated as some of the more recently introduced systems, General Motors was among the first to offer customers the ability to connect portable audio players into the vehicle's sound system in a broad range of vehicles. In April 2003, GM introduced a simple audio interface for MP3 players. The aux jack allows iPod and MP3 players to connect into the vehicle's audio system using a 3.5-mm jack, but does not control the media player's functions.

GM models equipped with a rear seat entertainment system have another type of audio connection. In these vehicles, customers have the option of listening to the audio through noise cancelling headphones that reduce ambient sounds and improve sound quality. The Koss noise cancellation, dual-channel infrared stereophone system uses Active Noise Reduction (ANR) to reduce annoying low-frequency sounds in the noisy vehicle environment. The system has an audio frequency response from 30 to 15,000 Hz.

To avoid RF interference problems in the vehicle, Koss engineers used infrared technology to transmit the audio signal. A photodiode in the headset is always in a position to have a line of sight path to the transmitter to avoid a disrupted signal. The unit's 23-ft transmission range is well within the vehicle's passenger compartment dimensions. The headphones are available as a dealer-installed accessory on all GM models equipped with a rear seat entertainment system.

Integrated Functionality and Software

With limited vehicle space, especially in the dashboard area, integrated functions are a design solution many carmakers pursue to add more electronic features. The Chrysler Group's MyGIG multimedia infotainment system integrates a CD, DVD, MP3 player, satellite radio and navigation system, as well as a 20 Gbyte hard disk drive. In addition to being able to store 6 Gbyte of music, the system has voice-activated commands, a 6.5-inch touch-screen display, a USB 2.0 port for additional audio and picture input and real-time traffic and navigation capability.

QNX, a leading supplier of automotive-grade operating systems (OSs), supplies the OS used in the MyGIG. QNX's software approach provides a rugged foundation for consumer electronics in the automotive environment. “We focus heavily on the kernel in the operating system and make that the only trusted component in the system,” says Andrew Poliak, automotive systems manager QNX. “We are going to make sure that the kernel is absolutely fault tolerant and failure proof.” Automotive systems with proprietary vehicle buses require custom device drivers to link to the kernel. A failure of one of these drivers can crash the whole system. With QNX tools, tier-one customers can build self-healing systems. As a result, if a device driver fails, the system does not crash and does not require rebooting.

Software has a unique role in automakers' approach to using consumer electronics. “The life cycle on a car is seven to 10 years, the life cycle on consumer electronics is 12 to 18 months, says Microsoft's Kolde. In the past, reconciling the life cycle difference was a very difficult challenge. Kolde concludes, “I think software is one of the critical components that helps synchronize those two.”

What's It cost?

At a manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) of $215 for the CAN-B Integrated kit ($179 for the J-1850 version) plus installation, Mopar's iPod Integration Kit falls within the range of a traditional radio upgrade. In contrast, every new GM vehicle from 2006 on gets the simple aux jack for free. While Ford has not revealed pricing for Sync, executives have hinted at pricing in the range of $500 to $600. That's not bad for a full-featured consumer electronics' device designed to be relevant over the life of the vehicle. As Ford's Jablonski notes, “It has to be priced in the place where our focused customer will check the box because they will see the value in it.”

Useful Links

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