Multimedia - A Net Gain

Sept. 1, 2008
While bluetooth continues to move down-market, engineers are exploring additional options for connectivity. one example—chrysler’s plan to turn its vehicles into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

Bluetooth is the prevailing technology for in-vehicle wireless networking and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Market researcher iSuppli estimates that 55% of model year 2008 vehicles for sale in North America offer Bluetooth as an optional or standard feature. That's up from 39% in MY2007, and the technology is likely to grow by another 15% in MY2009.

“We're seeing a fairly dramatic increase in terms of availability,” said Phil Magney, who heads iSuppli's automotive research practice. “Bluetooth is coming down-market rapidly. Middle to high-end vehicles are already onboard, and so are many entry-level models. Virtually all new vehicles will have Bluetooth going forward, and refreshed vehicles will also include Bluetooth.”

According to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), nearly every automaker offers at least one model that is Bluetooth enabled. IMS Research reports that 15% of cars now include OEM Bluetooth kits. The firm predicts that by 2012, about one-third of all light vehicles sold will contain Bluetooth technology.

Bluetooth chip developer CSR “has witnessed a big year-on-year growth in demand for wireless connectivity in the automotive industry,” according to Rafik Jallad, the firm's automotive business manager. “Globally there has been an increasing demand for factory-fitted and aftermarket hands-free car kits (Figure 1) as the number of in-car devices grows. Bluetooth is becoming a must-have feature not only in high-end vehicles but also in smaller cars as legislation is put in place to reduce cell phones being a distraction while driving.”

“With more countries and states banning cell phone usage while driving, the correlation on sales for Bluetooth hands-free devices is positive,” noted IMS market analyst Filomena Berardi. She added, however, that other Bluetooth applications like audio streaming, video streaming, and wireless sensors, will not have the same benefit.

The Bluetooth audio streaming (A2DP) automotive market is still relatively small compared to hands-free calling, according to Berardi, though sales of A2DP-enabled portable music players and handsets will have a positive impact on A2DP penetration rates in automotive applications.

The Bluetooth SIG said July 2008 marked a record qualification for A2DP-enabled products, with more than 180 passing muster.

“At this stage a significant majority of consumers are unfamiliar with the concept of wirelessly streaming music via Bluetooth,” said Berardi, “but this situation will change, and as the number of A2DP-enabled peripheral devices increases so will consumer adoption.

“Fundamentally, Bluetooth offers tremendous benefits to other applications within the car,” Berardi said. “It is a little premature for video streaming and wireless sensors as both would require new specifications — high-speed Bluetooth and Bluetooth low energy — that are incomplete. However, there is a lot of excitement in the automotive industry regarding the concept of Bluetooth low energy sensors, especially in the form of dual-mode head units.”

CSR's Jallad believes there will continue to be a strong demand for Bluetooth within automotive applications as the popularity of wireless connectivity grows (Figure 2), but he added, “Other complementary technologies, such as Wi-Fi and UWB (ultra wideband) will start to make gradual headway into the automotive sector in the next few years. The emergence of these technologies will necessitate better radio coexistence to ensure that the quality of the user experience is consistent.”

“There is not a lot beyond Bluetooth for wireless communication inside vehicles,” noted John Vincent, senior marketing manager for infotainment and telematics at Freescale Semiconductor, “but 4G technologies like WiMAX or Long Term Evolution (LTE) lie ahead for communication from outside when the infrastructure is in place.” Applications for 4G technology may include streaming traffic, weather, and other beneficial data, in addition to backseat web browsing.

“Connectivity to the vehicle is very important,” said Niall Berkery, vice president of telematics business development at Cross Country Automotive Services. “The broader the pipe the more services we can push, and the more that consumers can consume.” He noted that development of 4G technologies such as WiMAX and LTE is under way, but added, “the hot topic among automakers is who will be first to adopt 3G.”

“Connectivity is the hot item,” said Nathan John, system LSI manager at NEC Electronics America. “Two years ago, automotive infotainment amounted to playing the radio or CDs. Then it seemed as if all of the OEMs woke up to the fact that people want a rich media content experience in their car. The OEMs are scrambling now to provide that connectivity, so people can bring content in in new and different ways.”

Bluetooth is one aspect of the push for connectivity, according to John. “Bluetooth provides seamless communication not only for voice, but for audio content streaming, and the Bluetooth SIG is also thinking about how to get video content into the car in a way that makes it useful for customers. The SIG is scrambling to put standards together to make that a possibility.

“Some people are investing in higher speed Bluetooth,” John continued, “some are investing in Wi-Fi, or Wireless USB. All are sowing seeds in hopes that the right standard will emerge, and that they will be ready to jump on it.”

John said NEC has both connectivity and navigation products in development, including products for embedded systems as well as portable devices. Voice recognition and signal-conditioning applications such as echo cancellation, also present opportunities.

“As soon as a wireless data link exists between portable devices and infotainment systems, it's easy to think of things to do over that link, but almost all of them require more processor horsepower.”

While Ford has made a significant investment in Bluetooth technology for its SYNC system, Chrysler is partnering with Autonet Mobile and Mopar to offer aftermarket in-vehicle Internet connectivity on all Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep vehicles.

Chrysler's UConnect Web service promises to transform a vehicle into a mobile hotspot with a 100-foot radius. Wherever cellular service is available, the service will enable all vehicle passengers to connect simultaneously with Wi-Fi-enabled devices to access the Internet for e-mail, chat and IM; view streaming movies or TV shows; download music and download/upload images, or play online games.

The service runs over integrated 3G and 2.5G (EVDO, 1xRTT) cellular data networks. Internet access speeds are said to range from 400-800 Kb/s, with upload speeds averaging 400 Kb/s. The Wi-Fi connection is secured with WEP encryption, MAC address restriction, or WAN port restriction.

Chrysler advanced technology strategist Keefe Leung acknowledged that other automakers may be working to integrate Internet functionality with a car radio, “but what we wanted to do with UConnect Web was to turn the vehicle into a full Internet hotspot; to bring (the Internet) in over cellular technology to get high-speed ubiquitous coverage while moving, not limit the Internet to a small radio screen. This approach gets rid of the confines of built-in equipment. We want customers to be able to integrate the vehicle into their lifestyles (Figure 3). Whatever they use at home or in the office they can bring into their car and connect from there.”

Avis Rent A Car began offering Autonet Mobile devices in 2007 and they are available through other car dealers, according to Autonet Mobile co-founder and chief technology officer Doug Moeller (Figure 4).

Providing Internet connectivity inside a moving vehicle “is harder to do than you might think,” said Moeller. “When we started, we thought we'd just take a home router and put a cellular card in it and we'd be good to go. But we encountered a few problems maintaining the connection. Data can be lost while a vehicle is moving between towers. We had to solve the problem without impacting users or requiring them to load new software or requiring cellular providers to add new hardware.”

Moeller said Autonet Mobile's technology is protected by patents related to maintaining connectivity while in motion. “We manage all TCP/IP sessions,” he said. “The user's device maintains standard TCP, but the TCP session goes through our box, where we optimize TCP for the network environment dynamically, since the network environment is constantly changing.”

Other automakers are interested in providing Internet connectivity, according to Moeller. “It's an enormous market,” he said. “It's also a hard problem, and it can't be solved just with hardware. You have to get in the network path.”

Autonet Mobile's hardware includes a 32-bit Freescale 8313 PowerPC processor and a Novatel Wireless 3G radio. Moeller said the radio is optimized for the mobile environment, and Autonet Mobile's software has been tweaked to avoid interference with Bluetooth.

WAAV Autonet has been offering in-vehicle Internet access since 2004, according to marketing manager Jennifer Barth. The firm targets mass transportation and broadcasting markets with a Wi-Fi router that also offers a GPS option, but WAAV has also had discussions with automakers.

Barth said WAAV allows customers to select a cellular carrier network, and provides network encryption. “The public is not aware yet of how useful an Internet connection could be,” Barth said. “But a few years ago, most people said they wouldn't want GPS, and now most cars are GPS-enabled.”

Chrysler/Autonet's Wi-Fi solution is a bit of a hybrid solution, and possibly a bridge strategy for Chrysler, according to iSuppli's Magney.

“The Wi-Fi connection is not integrated with the vehicle's infotainment system. It requires the user to have a mobile device in order to access the Internet. It's a way to bring the Internet to the car, for sure, but its current value may be in its simplicity. It does bring the Internet into the car, but it does so in a way that does not involve onboard infotainment. Going forward, there will be an Internet requirement, but it will involve a lot of human-machine interface (HMI)) work by automakers. BMW in Germany is offering a solution through iDrive that it intends to bring to the rest of the world, and other OEMs are working on similar solutions. The Autonet approach is easy for an OEM because it doesn't involve other onboard infotainment.”

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are not mutually exclusive, according to Magney. “Bluetooth is here to stay for in-vehicle networking and other instances that would normally require cable.

“Right now, applications in a moving vehicle are limited to the size of the ‘pipe,’ Magney continued. “Technologies like WiMAX and LTE are coming for sure — it's just a question of when. With the infrastructure in place for a fatter pipe, we'll see more robust applications for mobile devices and embedded telematics systems.”

Magney estimates that 4G technology will be available as early as 2012. In the meantime, he anticipates steady improvement in satellite radio technology and content now that the SIRIUS/XM merger has been approved.

“Every OEM offers XM or SIRIUS and the take rates have been good,” he said. “Users will have more choice now, and broadcasters are also using satellite to distribute traffic and weather, as well as movie listings, gas prices, and other location-based services. Deployment of HD radio is growing, and that content will become richer as more local stations adopt the technology. HD radio and satellite radio can coexist, according to Magney. “What FM is today will transition to HD,” he suggested.

About the Author

John Day ([email protected]) is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing on automotive electronics technology.

Company Mentions
Autonet Mobile Chrysler LLC CSR Delphi Freescale Semiconductor IMS Research iSuppl Mopar NEC Electronics Novatel Wireless SIRIUS Satellite Radio SMSC STMicroelectronics WAAV Autonet XM Radio

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