The automotive electronics landscape is changing rapidly. Nowhere is this more evident than in on-board infotainment systems. From OnStar to Sync to Mini Connect, the trend is increasing capability while reducing distractions. But what if you could do away with these on-board systems entirely, and rely on consumer electronics technology instead? Potentially, cost and weight plummet while capability increases. Similarly, what happens if you could eliminate conventional copper-based wiring harnesses and replace them with smarter, dramatically lighter systems that offer the combination of plug-and-play capability with factory automation toughness? Both cases could be achieved through the addition of software. And while it might seem extreme, potential game-changing technologies are almost literally right around the corner.
Smart Phones, Smart Cars?
According to Delphi Corp. General Director of Advanced Product and Business Development, Dr. Robert Schumacher, "Phone apps offer easy upgradability and the promise of information, entertainment, the ability to conduct business and other functions in the palm of your hand." This has made the smart phone the fastest-growing computing platform on the planet, and gateway of choice into vehicles. According to Gartner Research (gartner.com):
- Consumers want greater connectivity from their mobile devices.
- Smart phones will rise from 40% to 60% of U.S. cell phone sales by 2012.
- 51% of phone users have a smart phone and download an average of 10 new apps each week.
- More than 30% of smart phone users utilize Internet radio, and an increasing number rely on Google Earth's (earth.google.com) navigation app for directions.
"By 2016," says Schumacher, "connectivity to a smart phone will become a significant buy factor for new car owners, and this will force the need for flexible solutions to both connectivity and driver distraction." However, unlike other suppliers, Delphi isn't looking to place the apps and a smart phone-like chipset in the vehicle. Instead, the consumer's smart phone will become the on-board infotainment computing platform, hooked to an open-source software platform that brings the smart phone's capabilities directly into the vehicle.
Within five years, Schumacher believes, both CD and DVD drive mechanisms will be as scarce in vehicles as cassette tape units, and the electronics for the radio will be integrated into the vehicle's antenna. This will open up a significant amount of room behind the instrument panel, a plus for vehicle downsizing. Also missing will be OEM-supplied on-board navigation systems. Google Earth's navigation app for Android—"It's free and more powerful than any in-car navigation system," says Schumacher—will replace in-dash units while tracking users to determine traffic flow and provide real-time updates. Couple that with Pandora Radio (pandora.com) streaming from the smart phone into the car, and Sirius-XM could find itself in trouble. Potentially, the big loser in all of this could be the car companies. They may find themselves providing the platform on which these technologies play, while deriving little to no revenue from their use.
Where automakers may make their profit, says Schumacher, is through licensing auto industry approved applications. They would be tested and validated so:
They don't provide a pathway through which the vehicle or its systems can be harmed while the smart phone interacts with them.
They meet industry/government standards for information presentation and use.
Interactivity with driver control systems (steering wheel buttons, touch screens, voice activation, etc.) is intuitive and safe.
Only approved applications containing a security key that certifies it's safe for use while driving could be used while the vehicle is in motion. Those that don't could only be used when the vehicle is parked. This will keep non-approved apps from interacting with the vehicle, and reduces the possibility of a virus entering the system. It also ensures that approved applications meet minimum standards for legibility, usability and simplicity in order to reduce distractions.
Schumacher says this technology will debut in a 2013 high-end luxury car, with rapid mass market adoption by 2016 as costs decline. This should result in significantly lower costs because the technology isn't hard-wired into the vehicle, and taps into consumer electronics the driver already owns. Further, it can be easily upgraded because the data used is in the computing cloud, not resident on the vehicle. A simple trip to an approved app store or an upgrade by a service provider will enhance the system and its capabilities. "This makes this technology 'future proof' in many ways," says Schumacher.
Smarter, Faster Wiring
VEEDIMS Corp. (the name stands for "Virtual Electrical Electronic Device Interface Management System"; veedims.com) is looking to replace conventional wiring harnesses with a plug-and-play automotive Ethernet that handles both power and data. It may be on to something. A wiring harness controlled by easily upgraded software increases both flexibility and reliability, while allowing OEMs to build their electrical systems around standardized modules.
According to Jeff Seward, Chief Tech-nology Officer of VEEDIMS veedims.com/product.php, "The entire wiring system on the power side of the car, with the exception of that going to the starter, disappears and is integrated into data cables that carry information to modules around the car." This means no fuses, minimal wiring, and no chassis ground in an easily scalable system. (Each cable carries its own ground-return wiring.) It also means the full duplex 100B-t Ethernet data hub distributes both data and up to 150 amps continuous electricity around the vehicle to modules for items like the lights, instrumentation, instrument panel switches, etc.
"Though 150 amps comes in," says Seward, "only 50 amps goes out each of the downstream ports." Limiting current to the modules (instrument panel switches need approximately three amps each, headlamps slightly more) is done electronically, and just about any cable can be plugged into any port on the hub. "The system does low-level communications when plugged in," says Seward, "to configure the power switch. If too much juice is supplied, it shuts down." Computer users will appreciate how this process is resolved: "Once the fault clears, you hit the reset button and go on your way." There are no fried parts to replace.
Because it is plug-and-play, routed through an on-board network and paired with an integrated telemetry system (each vehicle has its own IP address), VEEDIMS can track the dynamic history of a vehicle from the moment it is energized on the assembly line. Theoretically, an OEM could run car-to-car analyses or look at a single vehicle. Integral 3G connectivity means software upgrades can be pushed out to the vehicle as soon as they are ready, though this raises concerns that the car can be hacked. Seward is unworried. "Open-source technology means a number of common, not proprietary, solutions are available, and VEEDIMS can support SSL and other encrypted communication at the modules themselves." VEEDIMS makes it production debut on the $475,000 Iconic AC Roadster in the first quarter of 2011. Commercial grade cabling for an OEM-spec system is under development, and should weigh slightly less than a typical production wiring harness.