FireWire vies to become a mainstream automotive network

  • 11-May-2009 02:32 EDT
1394 can carry video throughout the car while also providing a link for cameras.

Proponents of the 1394 networking standard are taking aim at the automotive market, focusing on the rapidly growing need to move real-time video throughout the vehicle. A number of developments including product announcements show promise for the architecture despite the sluggish market’s impact on new technology adoption.

The 1394 Trade Association hopes that the bus becomes a mainstay in the automotive industry, giving the standard the big success it has long sought. The standard has seen solid acceptance in video and industrial cameras but not in the higher-volume markets once predicted. More than 1 billion 1394 nodes have been sold since the mid-1990s, but that number pales compared to the 2 billion per year rate for USB.

Now there are signs that automotive could become a big win for 1394, also known as FireWire. The trade association has made a number of tweaks to make the 800-Mbit/s standard more useful in automotive applications. Though automakers have not yet made firm commitments, they’re coming awfully close.

“1394 Automotive is an in-vehicle network that can enrich entertainment and comfort,” said Yuji Kawaguchi, Operating Officer of Honda R&D Co. "The importance of high-speed digital transmission will increase further in the future for handling in-vehicle multimedia transmission as well as to reduce weight.”

Nissan has also been a bullish member of the 1394 Trade Association, co-authoring articles detailing its viability. In April, Ford keynoted the first U.S. Automotive Technology Seminar in Dearborn, MI.

“Ford has supported developments in FireWire for automotive applications since 2000," said Doug VanDagens, Director of Connected Services, Ford Motor Co. “We’re active in the 1394 Trade Association.”

Ford’s partner in the popular Sync system, Microsoft, added a 1394 software stack from Wipro Technologies to Microsoft Auto early this year. That opens the door for usage in infotainment systems.

On the hardware side, Fujitsu recently introduced an 800-Mbit/s microcontroller for automotive applications, while Molex unveiled its HSAutoLink connectors, which are ruggedized for automotive applications. EqcoLogic rolled out a transceiver that extends the distance of coaxial cable links to 15 m (49 ft).

After several years of behind-the-scenes development, the stage is set for 1394’s assault on the automotive market. “The ecosystem is in place,” said Max Bassler, Chairman of the 1394 Trade Association.

­He predicts that 1394 will begin shipping on 2012 or 2013 model year cars, starting an industry-wide transition to the network. Speaking on the day that Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, he cautioned that time frames for new automotive programs are very much in flux.

One of the key pieces in the infrastructure is a specification called VersaPHY, which eliminated the multimedia software originally included in the standard. That makes it possible to cut costs significantly.

“VersaPHY lets you design devices with no software, " said Richard Mourn, President of Quantum Parametrics, which spearheaded VersaPHY’s development. “That allows you to match camera costs with point-to-point cameras, yet you still have the benefits of networking.”

Combined with the volume production gained in other fields, that makes it possible to use 1394 in low-end vehicles that may be purchased by more tech-savvy young buyers. “With 1394, you can start with a baseline platform that can go into a $15,000 car," Bassler said.

Cameras and related sensors such as radar may be one of the first applications for VersaPHY. However, carrying video inside the cabin is also expected to be a key application for 1394. The spec was originally written to carry uninterrupted video streams.

“In infotainment, no one wants to see interruptions," said Peter Helfet, Chief Executive of EqcoLogic. “And if you’re providing the infrastructure for safety features like lane-departure warning, there’s absolutely no room for latency.”

EqcoLogic's recently unveiled chip uses coaxial cable instead of twisted pair or quad cables to trim weight and cost while also adding power capabilities. “We’ve developed a small transceiver chip that lets us send signals a long way over coaxial cable," Helfet said. “We can run at a full Gbit/s in a full duplex mode and we can also carry power over the cable.”

Though 1394’s future looks bright, it will compete with Ethernet and the Media Oriented System Transport protocols. MOST has seen some success in Europe and Japan, but 1394 offers far more bandwidth and more versatility.

Though Ethernet brings huge commercial leverage, its Audio Video Bridging upgrade is not yet complete. Bassler also noted that 1394 provides the copyright protection sought by Hollywood. “There’s been a lot of work done on Digital Transfer Content Protection with 1394, but very little with Ethernet,” he said.

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