Intel is making a concerted effort to gain a foothold in the nascent telematics market, unveiling an open Linux-based architecture that helps automakers respond to rapid changes in the marketplace. The company plans to leverage its expertise with mobile devices, augmenting those capabilities through partnerships.
The company is among many vendors who are attempting to help automakers add wireless connectivity and integrate consumer products into the vehicle. Intel has dabbled with the automotive market for a few years, but is now starting a major focus to gain share in what is expected to be a large growth market.
“We shifted our focus in the last two years, preparing to become a bigger force in telematics and the connected car,” said Ton Steenman, General Manager of Intel’s Low-Power Embedded Products Division. "We believe connectivity and delivering services is where carmakers will innovate next."
Though Intel is the world’s largest semiconductor supplier, it has a negligible presence in automotive. Strategy Analytics lumps Intel into the “other” category, with less than 1% of the automotive market.
However, telematics is expected to explode rapidly over the next few years. That creates an opening that can be filled by companies that give automakers a way to adapt quickly.
“An open system platform improves time-to-market,” Steenman said. "The Internet is evolving too rapidly for automakers to bring in new features on today’s three- to five-year cycle."
Using an open platform will help automakers adapt. Steenman noted that many compatibility issues between Bluetooth phones and automotive systems stemmed from the inability of automakers to alter their designs.
“We have an ecosystem that gives design engineers access to the latest capabilities,” Steenman said. Two partnerships add aspects of that ecosystem.
Basic Linux lacks some features needed for cars, such as power cycling, so Intel teamed with real-time-software specialist Wind River Systems to fine-tune the operating system. One critical requirement is to isolate the many tasks running on the telematics platforms, making sure problems with one program do not impact others.
“It’s more and more important to partition applications when you have services, securing some versus opening others up for downloads,” Steenman said.
Steenman noted that, although automakers have voiced questions regarding the legal aspects of Linux, those concerns have abated since the telecom industry began using the open source software after voicing similar concerns about potential lawsuits.
On the hardware side, the chipmaker teamed up with Xilinx, which provides FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) that will give the platform hardware reprogrammability. Xilinx is offering an automotive FPGA that is included in the low-power Intel in-vehicle infotainment reference design that targets automotive head units.
Though FPGAs have not seen much acceptance in production vehicles, many observers say that will change as automakers search for ways to adapt their long design cycle and product lifetimes to the fast-changing consumer/connectivity markets. “Scalability is a critical aspect, since it allows automakers to add services and functions over time,” Steenman said.
These chips will augment the centerpiece of Intel’s automotive thrust, its Atom processor. The chip, unveiled early this year, offers low power consumption as well as compatibility with existing Intel devices.
That compatibility is critical to the strategy, since Intel has a significant presence in mobile and Internet systems, Steenman explained. Linking the two is critical, since drivers will want to use cell phones and Blackberries to link to the Internet, yet will still want to have connectivity when those portables are not in the car.
“There’s a big benefit to having an architecture with a consistent platform for nomadic and internal connectivity. If drivers forget their mobile device, many won’t want to lose all their services,” Steenman said.