Auto Electronics

At CES, mobile devices bring new options to auto electronics

The integration of personal electronics and auto electronics took a leap forward during the Consumer Electronics Show this year. With a push from keynoters from Ford and Microsoft, and a plethora of cool new auto-ready devices on the show floor, it was clear that car-connected handhelds-whether phones, music players or GPS devices — are breaking new ground. The show evidenced support from vendors with all the necessary hardware software, and plenty of great new applications to drive consumer demand.

Microsoft's Steve Balmer, in his kick-off keynote, talked about the company's growing emphasis on “cloud computing.” The cloud concept is that all a consumer's essential data is stored on servers in a data warehouse and is then accessible across all devices, throughout the consumer's day. One of the revolutionary ideas in Microsoft's vision is that graphics and other high-power processors would be centralized in the server, allowing greater application complexity and faster output on whatever client device the consumer is using. While Balmer talked about the “three screens” — computer, TV, and phone — it could be argued that the car represents a “fourth screen” (although in the car the preferred human interface is voice input/output, rather than a visual “screen”).

Balmer returned to the keynote stage during the presentation from Ford's Alan Mulally. Mulally outlined the future of SYNC, showing off an in-car personal avatar conversing via artificial intelligence and advanced voice-recognition capabilities. But Mulally said SYNC success is here and now: introduced in 2007, SYNC is now in more than 1 million cars. Ford made the strategic decision to roll out SYNC in the Focus, rather than limiting it to high-end models, bringing cell-phone-to-car integration to the masses, rather than the few. SYNC-equipped vehicles are selling twice as fast as non-SYNCed vehicles, and 31% of buyers said their overall buying decision was “strongly influenced” by the availability of the SYNC system. For the next generation, Ford is working with Nuance (voice recognition), Sharp, Microsoft, and Sony as it works to create the “totally configurable cockpit.”

Other new Ford developments described by Mulally include:

  • The Sirius Travel Link, which brings data via satellite radio link, offering info on traffic, gas prices, sports scores, movie times, and weather;
  • Ford Work Solutions, with an in-dash computer and 3G communications via Sprint to allow in-truck business services such as e-mail, routing, access to catalogs and specs, interface to office PC for QuickBooks, and printing of invoices. Mulally noted that 50% of Ford truck customers use their truck for work every day. Tool Link uses RFID to track what tools are in the truck. The truck owner fastens RFID tags to tools and other items and then a pair of RFID antennas inside the pickup bed or van cargo box scans for tagged items.
  • This spring Ford will roll out the Service Delivery Network, which will use services from INRIX to gather data from 1 million cars and will offer emergency response, diagnostics, traffic, and other info;
  • Ford is developing application program interfaces (APIs) for Apple iPhone Aps, to extend these aps to the Sync system.

Out on the show floor, there were many more examples of in-car connectivity. A couple that caught my eye (and that we are featuring on videos at

  • miRoamer, working with Blaupunkt, showed the first in-car Internet radio. The radio uses Bluetooth connectivity to the cell phone, and uses the cell phone to pull the streaming music into the car.
  • Telemetria demo'd the Dashtop, an in-dash PC head unit, which offers full PC functionality optimized for the car. Using the Intel Atom processor, the system offers broadband, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity. Dashtop is fully customizable for the OEM market, and enables a full-range of PC and data services. Offering the driver everything from real-time engine monitoring and diagnostics to social networking, Telemetria showed that the age of the connected vehicle is truly upon us.
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