Multimedia trends: Creative Connectivity

Sept. 1, 2006
Modular designs and proprietary protocols are helping automakers meet buyers' rising expectations for in-vehicle electronics.

Automobile buyers are coming to demand in their vehicles the same multimedia functionality they enjoy at home. Automotive design cycles, however, though much shorter than they used to be, lag far behind those in consumer electronics. As a result, OEMs, tier one suppliers and component manufacturers are coming up with creative ways to anticipate and meet buyers' requirements for connectivity, new sources of content, and a more robust infotainment experience.

"Forecasting trends in automotive media applications is a major challenge for OEMs and flexibility is a necessity," noted Brian Fortman, worldwide marketing manager for digital radio and entertainment in Texas Instruments' automotive infotainment group (

Semiconductor manufacturers have developed system-on-chip (SoC) devices for radio and entertainment head unit products, ac-cording to Fortman. "These SoCs merge MCU, general-purpose processor (GPP) and DSP functions with application-appropriate peripheral sets and memory configurations on-to single chips tailored for multimedia-enabled automotive systems."

"With a programmable DSP, new features and functions such as audio formats or connectivity options can be loaded when an entertainment head unit is ready to be programmed during production," Fortman explained. "Head units in the field can also be upgraded as code is enhanced and standards evolve."

"System cost reduction through integration on silicon is enabling new applications and driving higher market adoption of multimedia-based solutions," noted Steve Rosebaugh, senior product manager for Infotainment, Multimedia and Telematics Operation at Freescale Semiconductor.

"We are positioning products that can support digital media processing while keeping power consumption low enough to avoid heatsinks, fans and other undesirable additions, and we provide a platform approach that allows customers to scale their products while reusing their investment in software. Due to the technology proximity to consumer markets, it's vital to have a flexible, high-performance platform approach that allows software to drive differentiation and competitive updating of the OEM systems being put into vehicles." Semiconductor manufacturers can lower customers' costs not only by integrating multiple functions on a chip but also by reducing wiring requirements. For example, National Semiconductor offers a high-speed low-voltage differential signaling (LVDS) serializer/deserializer (SerDes) chipset that serializes 24 bits of data over a single differential pair (two wires) in flat-panel display applications including navigation and rear-seat entertainment systems.

In 800 x 480 resolution liquid crystal displays (LCDs), National's DS-90C241 serializer and DS90C124 deserializer achieve the same level of image quality with just two wires as previous LVDS interface generations did with eight wires. The SerDes chipset saves system cost by helping to reduce PCB layers, cable width, connector size and pin count. Among National's other offerings for multimedia applications is an analog IC, CP3SP33SMR, that targets Bluetooth applications. The CP3SP-33SMR combines a RISC core and a Teak DSP co-processor with numerous peripheral devices. Combined with a Bluetooth radio transceiver like National's LMX5252, the CP3SP33MR provides a complete Bluetooth solution (Figure 1).

Akio Nezu, Fujitsu Microelectronics America's senior marketing director for Embedded Products, noted that substantial progress has been made in the past year on in-vehicle networking systems to provide rear seat entertainment. "Some of the major auto companies are moving to a model based on the IDB-1394 specification, which enables a cost-efficient vehicle network for DVD players and other devices in the front and rear seats," he said.

For such applications, Fujitsu offers the MB88387 IDB-1394 controller, and it plans to introduce a successor model, the MB88388, which will include SmartCODEC technology designed to enable the transmission of DVD video, digital TV, and navigation images over 1394 in the vehicle (Figure 2), without any external MPEG encoders and decoders. "The SmartCODEC has been designed to eliminate any potential transmission bottlenecks that can be caused by MPEG encoding and decoding processes, and guarantee smooth, uninterrupted delivery of video content," Nezu said.

For reasons of flexibility, as well as cost, OEMs and tier one suppliers are deploying their own communications schemes. Toyota developed its proprietary AVC-LAN protocol in order to accommodate a broad range of future intelligent transportation systems (ITS), according to Paul Williamson, a professor at the University of Toyota, which is responsible for dealer training. "Two vehicles of the same model can roll down the assembly line and one will get a four-channel amplifier and four speakers while the next one gets a six-channel system," he explained. "When the head unit powers on, it will control whichever system it sees. We can add a navigation computer or boxes for other systems, wherever there may be room in the vehicle, and the devices will find each other."

Williamson said that Toyota uses controller area network (CAN) networking for mission-critical applications and separates a vehicle's CAN and AVC-LAN networks with a firewall. Body electronics are the responsibility of a third network, body electronics area network (BEAN).

Alpine Electronics of America Inc. plugs multimedia components into a proprietary bus called Ai-NET. "We have the ability to hook-in satellite radio, Bluetooth, HD radio, or whatever additional source or functionality is required," said Scott Neill, product training and education manager.

He cited as one example Alpine's double-DIN IVA-W200 AV plus head unit, which the firm introduced in May. It has a 6.5-inch touch screen; plays AM/FM, CDs and DVDs, and has a full-speed iPod connection. "Users can add-on, or build the system they want. They have a starting point, and can tailor the unit to their exact needs," Neill said. "An all-in-one solution would drive the cost up, and consumers could end up paying for functionality they don't want. The modular approach keeps the cost down and lets customers get the components they really want."

Neill added, "People are familiar with computers and connectivity, and text messaging, and they ask why they can't do the same in a vehicle," Neill continued. "When we start to go down the road of connectivity, it becomes less a question of technology - 'can we do it?' - than 'should we do it?'"

In all but its top-of-the-line 7 series, BMW offers an iPod interface that allows owners to access their music (up to 500 tracks) or podcast libraries by play list, genre, album or artist; skip between tracks, and adjust the vehicle's sound system volume, from controls in the steering wheel. The interface is also compatible with Sirius satellite radio. Future BMW models will include an auxiliary input jack, according to product communication specialist Bill Scully, but the automaker has no immediate plans to offer a hard disk drive. Scully said HD radio is an option on 7, 6 and 5 series BMW models, and rear-seat entertainment is an option on the 7 series and the X5 sport activity vehicle that will be introduced later this year.

Chrysler's 2007 Sebring features a Harmon/Kardon information/entertainment/navigation system with a 6.5-inch touch-screen display, a 20 Gb hard disk drive with Music Juke Box software, a USB port, and voice memo recording. The vehicle also includes an auxiliary jack, Sirius satellite radio, and hands-free Bluetooth phone connectivity.

"The iPod and MP3 are one of the more requested features and more successful aftermarket features," said Larry Wu, senior director of Automotive Emerging Technologies at J.D. Power and Associates. "That connectivity appeals to a younger demographic, but they are targets for new vehicle purchases."

Other technologies that appeal to car buyers, according to Wu, include an auxiliary input jack; wireless transmitters, including Bluetooth and USB port.

"There is a lot of electronics technology fighting to get into the vehicle," noted T.C. Wingrove, senior manager of North American product marketing for Visteon Corporation. "In the '80s, a car might have a radio and a cassette player. Now there are multiple CD formats, iPods, MP3 players, phones that play music, and portable navigation devices."

Visteon keeps in contact with consumer electronics firms so it can react quickly when specifications change, and its aftermarket group provides insight into consumer preferences, but to determine what car buyers want integrated in their next vehicle, Visteon conducts in-depth research; not only observing behaviors, but also assessing unanticipated needs.

"Consumers were thrilled to have an auxiliary jack a year ago, but when you watch them use it, you gain actionable insight into product development," Wingrove said. "If they can connect an MP3 player but then have to use the device itself to select a song - and do it while they're driving - it's dangerous. As long as they don't get into an accident, they might not see the need to use a display screen to select songs and control the device."

After conducting research on consumer preferences for rear-seat entertainment, Visteon developed a dockable entertainment system that can be used in multiple locations. It extended that system to integrate Nintendo's Game Boy Advance. "The key people who ride in the back seat range from age three to 12," said Wingrove, "and Nintendo has the highest percentage of titles geared toward that market.

While a modular solution may make sense for rear-seat entertainment, front-seat connectivity requires support for a variety of devices. Visteon offers MACH Voice Link, for example, allows users to connect as many as six Bluetooth-enabled phones in a vehicle and to assign an order of precedence. Wingrove said that Visteon works with handset manufacturers to guarantee that phones will work.

For portable music players, a USB port enables mass storage-compatible devices to be played through a vehicle's sound system. "The USB port gives OEMs the ability to upgrade software in the field if a new format comes out," Wingrove said. "It reduces the time and complexity involved in an upgrade as opposed to having to replace a hardware module."

Wingrove cited strong price competition as one of the challenges for multimedia system suppliers. "There are more sources converging in the vehicle, but consumer expectations are keeping vehicle prices down," he said. Styling is also a challenge and a focus of competition. "A platform approach gives us economies of scale in design and purchasing," he said.

Visteon Corporation achieved the highest-quality recognition in the AM/FM/single CD player segment of the J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Multimedia Quality and Satisfaction Study. In the same study, consumers ranked Clarion Corporation of America as having the highest quality in the AM/FM/multi-CD changer radio segment.

Clarion was one of the first mobile electronics companies to introduce a head unit with direct iPod connection capability, the VRX755D. A successor, VRX765VD, features a motorized 7-inch flip-out touch screen and playback of iPod audio and video files; also DVD, DVD video, CD audio and video CD, as well as MP3, WMA and encoded CDs. The VRX765VD is compatible with optional accessories including DVD changers, TV tuners, and Dolby digital/ DTS 5.1 channel processors.

Clarion's MAX675MC double DIN multimedia system (Figure 3), with a motorized 7-inch color widescreen LCD, offers an on-screen control pad for full control of iPod music functions as well as video playback. The system is satellite radio- and navigation system-ready, and it includes Clarion's Music Catcher technology for recording, playing and erasing the equivalent of six CDs.

OEMs and aftermarket suppliers are divided on the best removable storage format to use, according to Clare Hughes, an analyst in Strategy Analytics' Automotive Practice. "While the majority of retrofit automotive infotainment systems with removable storage cards use SD or MMC format, car makers are showing a preference for USB connectivity," she said.


John Day writes regularly about automotive electronics and other technology topics. He holds a BA degree in liberal arts from Northeastern University and an MA in journalism from Penn State. He is based in Michigan and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

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