Consumer-device supplier targets autos with USB hub

  • 04-May-2009 11:00 EDT
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SMSC’s hub will let drivers link many consumer devices to their cars.

The trend to include USB ports in vehicles is accelerating rapidly. One of the major players in USB chips for PCs and consumer electronics, SMSC, is moving into the automotive market with a multiport hub.

Chips in SMSC’s TrueAuto line will let automakers link four USB devices to a vehicle, underscoring the rapid growth of USB as the preferred connection for consumer products. Today, a single port is a rarity. iSuppli estimated that only 16% of 2008 model year vehicles had a USB port.

But that is changing rapidly. Strategy Analytics predicts that, by 2015, 56% of new cars and light vehicles produced will offer USB connectivity.

Basic USB connectivity is increasingly being built into microcontrollers, generally offering one or two ports. SMSC predicts that more connections will be needed. Most, but not all, of these connections will be accessible so consumers can attach MP3 players and other devices.

“There may be USB connections that don’t come out to the consumer—things like hard drives and card readers for something like an SD card,” said Henry Muyshondt, Senior Director of Business Development for SMSC's Automotive Infotainment Systems Group. “Some automotive microcontrollers have USB ports, but there may be a need for more ports.”

Though the hub chip marks SMSC’s entry into this portion of the market, the company has experience in the segment where automotive and consumer markets overlap. It has been shipping MOST (Media Oriented System Transport) chips to European and Japanese automakers for a few years.

The growing demand for infotainment options is driving the trend to multiport connectivity. The SMSC hub may connect a plug that is inside the glove compartment and one or two connectors for the back seat. In addition to MP3 players, USB storage devices, and game controllers, passengers may also want to plug in cell phones.

“You may want a port for phones, not necessarily for access but for charging,” Muyshondt said.

Muyshondt stressed that the company will go beyond basic industry requirements as it moves its consumer technology into the harsh automotive field. “Other suppliers typically test to AEC-Q100," he said. “It has good tests that help make sure parts are robust, but that doesn’t make them automotive parts.”

Most of SMSC’s ruggedization efforts begin during the design process. “We make certain traces are wide, and we add vias to make sure all the interconnects are more reliable,” Muyshondt said. “We also add scan gates so the automotive testers can check out all the paths.”

He predicts that the popular USB 2.0 version of the bus will dominate automotive applications. Its 480-Mbits/s data transfer rate is far higher than the USB 1.1 link used to connect mice and keyboards to PCs. The speeds of USB 3.0, which has not even begun shipping in consumer products yet, are not currently needed in autos.

“I don’t expect to see USB 1.1 in cars, and it will be a while before USB 3.0 rolls out and starts making its way into automotive,” Muyshondt said.

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