Automotive Infotainment: Get The Show On The Road

Aug. 2, 2007
No longer just a niche market, the surging consumer appetite for more electronics gadgetry and services in the car has automakers and their IC suppliers scrambling to keep pace.

These days, drivers and passengers want—and tend to expect—all of the technological comforts of home out on the road. But consumer demand for traditional in-vehicle infotainment systems like CD players is giving way to products that support downloadable content. Nowadays, cars better be compatible with cell phones, MP3 players, GPS devices, and other portable media platforms.

PORTABLE AND WIRELESS CONNECTIVITY The latest automotive hard-disk drives (HDDs) now offer 40 Gbytes or more, purely to store multimedia information. Toshiba, for one, provides automotive-grade 2.5-in. HDDs in capacities up to 40 Gbytes—perfect for tunes and movies alike.

Yet all of this data requires a powerful and flexible database management system (DBMS). With Hitachi's small-footprint Entier, converged and mobile device application developers can efficiently include sophisticated search functionality in their products. Designed with the limitations of small devices in mind, it features complex text, incremental, conceptual, and spatial searching, as well as alias handling.

Last year, Chrysler launched a new option on select 2007 vehicles, the MyGIG hard-drive navigation system, joining similar systems from Mitsubishi and Lexus (Fig. 1). Unlike DVDs and CDs, hard-drive navigation systems provide faster navigation recalculation and better graphics and interfaces. Being an HDD, MyGIG also makes it possible to store and play audio files from the hard drive. It's like having a permanent iPod in your car.

TomTom and Johnson Controls last year collaborated on a mobile Bluetooth device gateway targeting production 2008 cars (Fig. 2). The unit enables an electronic device, such as a TomTom satellite navigation system, to communicate with a car's network for innovative and safe navigation. Through Johnson Controls' voice-recognition technology, users can verbally command the TomTom GO device for even greater ease of use. Consumers will also experience several intuitive features, such as automatic notification that fuel is low and directions to the nearest gas station.

This year, STMicroelectronics announced a broadcasting chip set for the Sirius Satellite Radio Backseat TV Service. The system delivers live TV from family TV networks to the video screens of select vehicles.

MAJOR MARKET Coupled with the multitude of networking protocol choices, these developments are forcing car makers, tier one suppliers, and IC manufacturers to rethink the way they deliver automotive infotainment products and services to their customers.

So, what's the main challenge faced by designers? They must find ways to create consumer-electronics devices with very short life cycles that are compatible with the much longer life cycles of automobiles. Needless to say, the companies involved are more than happy to cash in on a very lucrative market.

According to market analyst iSuppli Corp., worldwide vehicle production will reach 82 million in 2012 while the total market for automotive infotainment ICs will grow from $36 billion in 2006 to $54 billion in 2012 (Fig. 3). Shipments of portable navigation devices alone will triple from roughly 14 million units this year to about 42 million units by 2012 (Fig. 4).

Underlying all of this prognostication is a variety of global interconnect and communications protocols for handling infotainment as well as embedded controls. This includes wired connectivity as well as a burgeoning need for wireless connectivity using Bluetooth and USB protocols.

Two major consortia, AutoSar (Automatic Open Source Architecture) and Jaspar (Japan Automotive Software Platform Architecture), are driving networking protocols. Both groups have the same goals: to drive down software-development costs, improve software reliability, and make automotive electronics much more affordable. In fact, AutoSar's architecture addresses many of the existing automotive networking protocols (see "A Plethora Of Automotive Networking Protocols" at, Drill Deeper 16157).

PLATFORMS AND COLLABORATIONS Satisfying different networking protocols represents a huge challenge for automotive IC makers. Predicting which type of protocol will require what kind of silicon function is difficult at best, since consumer demands for infotainment features change so rapidly. Furthermore, the life cycles of cars are much longer than the life cycles of the chips going into them.

One solution is to produce platform ICs that support many if not all of these protocols. Another approach involves collaboration with other IC manufacturers, tier 1 suppliers, and automotive manufacturers early on in the design cycle.

For instance, SMSC strongly supports the Media Oriented Systems Technology (MOST) standard for the North American automotive infotainment market. Its INIC eLITE technology platform offers a simple automotive networking solution that enables the creation of low-cost multimedia links.

Leveraging its OMAP (open media applications platform) architecture, Texas Instruments recently demonstrated what it claims is the industry's first application processor to play back 720p high-definition (HD) video for high-end mobile phones. TI expects to apply this technology to automotive applications as well.

TI also says that the OMAP3430 is the first application processor to integrate the newly defined OpenGL ES 2.0 graphic standard. In addition, two new members of the scalable OMAP 3 processor family will help handset manufacturers provide smart phones with robust multimedia functionality at a lower cost. Such connectivity with voice recognition could provide hands-free wireless communications, either through Bluetooth or the dashboard, anywhere in the car.

Freescale Semiconductor makes devices that support the FlexRay, AutoSar, Jaspar, mobileGT NEXUS 5001, LIN, and SPARC protocols. Its i.MX31 multimedia applications processor is the engine used in the joint Ford/Microsoft Sync protocol for in-car infotainment.

The 400-MHz unit runs the Microsoft operating system. It handles audio-signal processing for hands-free operation. And, it performs all of the voice-recognition functionality in Sync. The Sync system provides voice-control features for mobile phones and MP3 players like iPod and Zune.

NEC Electronics works closely with automotive tier 1 suppliers and car manufacturers to anticipate market needs. "It is a daunting challenge for automotive IC manufacturers to predict what new features and functions will be needed," says John Bridwell, director of technology in the Automotive Strategic Business Unit of NEC Electronics America.

"We leverage our expertise in audio signal processing in the consumer market to meet changing customer demands for in-car electronics," says Jens Eltze, principal technical engineer in NEC's Automotive Strategic Business Unit.

Freescale recently collaborated with Tilcon Software to deliver a platform for telematics applications, a combined hardware and software solution that enhances graphics-display performance. The Freescale Media5200 processor platform works with the Tilcon interface development suite (IDS).

NXP Semiconductors unveiled a reference design for MOST systems based on the company's Nexperia platform, which uses the NXP 9520 processor (Fig. 5). To be deployed in 2008 Chrysler vehicles, it targets navigation systems that require a 3D rendering engine to make sense of the real-time GPS data and video from car-mounted cameras.

"Future automotive infotainment features will require an intelligent design to meet both the proliferating standards and long product cycle times," says Pierre Mehn, product market manager for software and video processing for the Car Entertainment Solutions Business Line at NXP Semiconductors. "Our Nexperia platform represents a new design paradigm that addresses these issues."

The company recently announced a major customer win with Sirius Satellite Radio, which is using NXP's 9250 processor to power Sirius' backseat TVs in 2008 model Chrysler vehicles. Two out of every three cars worldwide include at least one NXP card-radio chip set.

OPERATING SYSTEMS The increasing complexity of automotive infotainment systems continually challenges operating-system (OS) software providers to come up with the right platform, no matter what ICs or bus protocols are used (see "The OS Is King In Automotive Infotainment," Drill Deeper 16158).

"Many operating systems do not have the right reliability and diagnostic capabilities needed for present and future automotive infotainment systems," says Andrew Pollack of QNX Software. "Software will be the key differentiator for automotive infotainment."

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