Car infotainment evolves to let drivers incorporate consumer electronics

  • 16-Jan-2013 03:09 EST
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Radio head units may have more wired connections such as USB and HDMI, but companies such as Visteon are also moving to more wireless links, possibly including battery charging.

Radio head units are evolving rapidly as more consumers want to have access to most, if not all, their infotainment options while in their vehicles. Hardware developers are responding with more computing power while they examine a number of wireless technologies that will play a significant role in radio head units.

One of the biggest factors for radio developers is to provide enough computing power to keep pace with the rapid advances in consumer technologies. Conventional auto industry chipmakers are being pushed by microcontroller suppliers focusing on consumer products that are stepping into an automotive market segment. The moves require rapid advances in the clock rates of multicore processors.

“Automotive designs generally have little headroom, but automakers want to design for the future so they can expand functionality over time,” said Joel Hoffmann, Intel’s Strategist for the Automotive Solutions Division. “Semiconductors used in consumer products provide plenty of headroom for automakers.’

As more consumer products are linked to radios and sound systems, there is growing demand for more computing power. Controllers that can handle many tasks without interruption are needed to stream audio while displaying movies and handling navigation. That is prompting some to predict that powerful microcontrollers will eventually displace specialized radio components, effectively turning radios into specialized computing systems.

“There’s a lot happening in radios, with telematics, cell phones, and soon car-to-car communications and sound systems that go up to 24 channels,” said Torsten Lehmann, Senior Vice President of Global Automotive Sales and Marketing at NXP Semiconductors. “That all means that software-defined radio is definitely coming.”

At the same time, there is an increasing demand to link smartphone apps to vehicles. That’s forcing developers to plan for apps that may get more complex as time goes by.

“A lot of apps don’t take much computing power, but we see CPU bandwidth as an issue in the future as apps get more complicated and people want to run many at once,” said Mark Peters, Director of Engineering for Car Multimedia at Robert Bosch LLC.

While developers grapple with these issues, they must also figure out how to connect consumer products to vehicles. Wired connections will remain commonplace for quite some time.

USB ports are quite widespread, and many suppliers are migrating from USB 2.0 to its next generation, USB 3.0. Automakers may have to add another link that is popular in homes, the high definition multimedia interface (HDMI) connector.

“Many newer phones and portable media players support HDMI output. This now puts some pressure on the vehicle industry to support the HDMI standard for streaming audio and video to the vehicle,” said T.C. Wingrove, Senior Manager, Global Electronics Innovation at Visteon.

However, many observers note that wired connections can be problematic for automakers, who will never be able to match the rapid changes that occur in consumer products. For example, Apple changed from a 30-pin connection to the new eight-pin Lightning connector, creating an incompatibility issue.

“A lot of car makers who built docks got caught when Apple changed its connector,” said Andy Gryc, Automotive Product Marketing Manager for QNX Software Systems. “That shows how vulnerable they are. Anything they can do wirelessly gives them more flexibility.”

Design teams are meeting this challenge by employing wireless technologies in two areas: in-vehicle and connections to the cloud. First, they’re using standards such as Bluetooth and possibly Wi-Fi to link handhelds in the car to communicate with the radio head unit. Currently, a problem with these technologies is that users must still use a cable to recharge smartphones or tablets.

However, advances in wireless charging technologies may eventually change that, letting users enjoy completely cord-free connectivity. Three standards are vying for adoption.

“Today, there are major wireless charging standards from the Wireless Power Consortium, Power Matters Alliance, and the Consumer Electronics Association,” Wingrove said. “It remains to be seen which one will establish the industry standard.”

The other facet of wireless connections is linking to the cloud. Regardless of whether they connect via a smartphone or an in-vehicle telematics unit, cellular links are being used to give drivers a huge array of options. For example, apps can be up-to-date when they’re stored on the cloud.

“We’re moving towards putting apps in the cloud, not on the smartphone or the radio head unit,” said Frank Hirschenberger, Senior Director of Innovation at Agero. “Then you have the opportunity to modify it on the server instead of on the head unit.”

Once these connections are established, designers have many strategies for improving the overall infotainment capabilities. Improved human-machine interfaces and timely navigation information are just a couple advances.

“Greater bandwidth allows more cloud content and applications to be utilized in automotive environments. A few examples include: off-board voice recognition, navigation, social networking, internet radio, and video,” Wingrove said.

However, cost is always an issue. Those who spend a lot of time in their vehicles may see that as an impediment that prevents them from constantly streaming media. However, some feel that this may change by the time cloud connectivity becomes commonplace in vehicles.

“The main impediment to ubiquitous media streaming in vehicles today is the cost for data. Streaming medium- to high-quality audio for about an hour each day could approach 2 GB of data per month,” said Rob Gee, Product Line Manager, Connected Systems and Services, at Continental Automotive. “Once these data prices for moderate- to high-speed data are alleviated, the door will be open for one of the content aggregators to offer a simple interface to access any radio stations that offer live streaming or podcasts.”

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