Auto Electronics

Software Programmability Key to Bringing Consumer Products to the Vehicle

It is well-known that automotive vehicle development involves research and development, with stringent safety demands and rigid product standards that apply to every part of today's vehicles. Automotive entertainment systems are some of the most rapidly advancing, but the automotive design hubs like the United States, Japan, Korea and Germany, are still making technology and component choices for automobiles that will not hit the road until 2009 or 2010.

The consumer electronics market, on the other hand, seems to evolve every few months. Furthermore, it is not just the music content, but its connectivity, that keeps evolving. What was once a socket for headphones is now a USB connection, an FM transmitter or a streaming Bluetooth protocol. Consumers are looking for their in-car products to keep pace with the consumer world or give them the flexibility to connect them.

Recent advances have brought USB, MP3, Bluetooth and iPod to the vehicle. Like everything else in the consumer landscape — the computer, the home entertainment center, the portable entertainment devices — the car has become a converged application, dependent on the convergence of audio, video and data to provide entertainment.

Today's car radio is evolving into an in-car entertainment center that needs to deliver navigation and critical integrated video and driver-assistance applications. It needs to connect to devices that provide personalized content, as well as protection from malicious content that may be embedded in the files. Customer-requested features, such as direct access from the web and enabling diagnostic uploads, have the opportunity to turn a once stable entertainment infrastructure framework, into a hotbed of patches and a business case for automotive spyware.

So how do two markets, different in their life cycles and philosophies, meet on the manufacturing highway to ensure today's vehicles feature the latest consumer products? Rest assured that the automotive market is not budging from the processes and procedures that make it one of the most complicated markets to develop technologies for. It is the tier-one and tier-two suppliers that face the challenge of designing solutions that enable OEMs to bring the best in consumer electronics to the vehicle.

OEMs require scalable solutions that cover multiple applications. The logical solution is software. By using a programmable architecture, OEMs can update the infotainment systems closer to the point of production start, supporting the latest features. Hardened solutions are not easily upgradable and paint OEMs into a corner. Recalling that OEMs are making decisions regarding telematics and infotainment systems that won't hit the road until 2009, the software-based solution at the hub of the in-car entertainment unit, gives the OEMs that extra time to absorb the rapid changes in the consumer market.

However, software architecture alone is not sufficient as no one wants to add features to the main critical units of an infotainment system late in the development cycle. If a software-programmable media gateway was implemented that connected to the main A/V system through an analog interface, then this unit could be modified — without upsetting the entertainment infrastructure — yet it can connect to all vehicles, in the showrooms and on the driveway. This multimedia interface insulates the main system software from viruses, ensuring the stability of the main radio infrastructure. Instead of altering the framework of the radio, the multimedia interface enables manufacturers to leverage the existing framework and add to it. Deploying the multimedia interface with an array of consumer interfaces — such as USB and SD-card storage devices, Bluetooth and WLAN — the short-term requests for content-level browsing and control of iPods and other MP3 players are handled.

The multimedia gateway lights a path for OEM and after-market providers to deliver rapidly changing personalized content into our slowly changing personalized vehicles. It used to be commuters didn't like to leave the comforts of home; if automotive and consumer electronics manufacturers have their way, homeowners may not want to leave the comfort of their car.


Mark Gill is segment business manager, Automotive Infotainment, Analog Devices Inc.

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