Auto Electronics

Automakers must get personal

In the 1960s, the LSD guru Timothy Leary advised everyone to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Well, it's now 2007 and, instead of psychedelic drugs, most consumers are hooked on iPods, MySpace, custom ringtones, and other trappings of a personalized digital lifestyle. In fact, digital personalization has become big business: Ringtone sales for 2006 reached $600 million in the United States alone.

Automakers, to their credit, have begun to tune into this trend. But as to whether they're turning on consumers is another matter.

Consider the iPod. Many, if not most, new car models offer connectivity to iPods and other MP3 players. The problem is consumers today don't want mere connectivity; they want sophisticated integration. They want a solution that lets them say, “Hey, I really like the track that's playing now; have the iPod play more songs like it.” Few iPod connectivity options offer anything close to this level of control, and the personalization it affords. In most cases, they simply let the user adjust the volume and choose from a small number of playlists.

The iPod is the tip of the iceberg. Consumers also want their car radios to play content from USB flash drives, PlaysForSure media players, UPnP devices, CDs/DVDs, Bluetooth phones — the list goes on. Like the iPod, some of these gadgets may contain thousands of music files. So, to begin, the radio must organize this vast catalog of music to make content navigation easy, regardless of what device(s) the music is stored on. The radio also needs intelligent voice control, since using buttons or touchscreens to access songs or build play-lists could create an unconscionable level of driver distraction. And, to ensure it can actually hear what the driver is saying, the radio must also employ noise suppression to filter sounds generated by wind, rain, tires, HVAC systems, rumble strips, and that Viper passing you at 140 mph.

All of which to say, personalization isn't easy. It requires the integration of many enabling technologies. It also requires the flexibility to support new media formats, new streaming content, and new digital rights management (DRM) techniques, all of which are evolving too quickly for the typical three-year to five-year development schedule of automotive systems. It's not surprising, then, that the iPod integration in most cars consist of little more than an audio input jack.

To enter into the domain of true personalization, automakers and their electronics suppliers will have to depend on one thing more than anything else: software. And, despite the bad rap that software has gotten as a result of crash-prone desktop operating systems (OSs), it can actually ensure that personalization goes hand in hand with reliability.

Consider, for example, what can happen when a driver plugs in an MP3 player. If the firmware is out of date, the car's infotainment system may get confused and perform incorrectly. If the MP3 player contains 5000 songs, the infotainment system can slow to a crawl while it catalogues the media library. Either way, it's the car that looks bad, not the MP3 player.

Advances in OSs and middleware are addressing these issues. For instance, some automotive-grade OSs support resource partitioning, which ensures that critical software tasks always have the memory and CPU time they need to perform responsively. As a result, an infotainment system can continue to perform its various functions as expected, even while its database software is busy cataloging thousands of tunes.

Meanwhile, well-designed multimedia middleware can recognize a previously inserted MP3 player or USB stick and do a smart synchronization, scanning for only newly added content. In fact, it can do so while playing other songs from either the MP3 player or another device. Consumers get the instant usability experience they expect.

The point is that automakers and their suppliers can graduate to true personalization. The software they need is ready, available, and automotive-grade. And when they do adopt it, we will evolve from a world where people turn on, tune in, and drop out to a world where everyone can turn on, plug in, and get personal.


Andrew Poliak is business manager, automotive strategic alliances for QNX Software Systems. He is responsible for building, developing and maintaining relationships in the automotive value chain. Poliak has nearly 10 years of experience in the embedded space in various sales and marketing positions where he has worked on the development of extensive worldwide reseller and distributor product channels.

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