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At Johnson Controls, electronics technology evolution is likely to go from the HomeLink device that lets you automatically open your garage door to BlueConnect, which is a Bluetooth-enabled device that will allow hands-free cell phone use in your car.

From Opening Garage Doors To Implementing Bluetooth: A Look At JCI's Electronics

Although some people might know Johnson Controls (JCI) as a seat/interiors provider, the organization does have a not-insignificant electronics concern. (No, this isn’t related to the word controls in the company’s name; that is more related to the company’s building HVAC and related operations.) Jim Geschke is JCI’s vice president of Electronics Integration. He deals with cars and trucks, not ducts and vents.

According to Geschke, JCI’s “humble beginnings” in the automotive electronics arena really began in 1978, when the company integrated a garage door opener into an overhead console. This was an alternative to the clipping of the opener onto the visor. But there was something of a drawback in that it was necessary for the vehicle owner to install a receiver in his garage in order to make it work.

The next step, which was taken in the early ‘80s, was to integrate a compass into the overhead trim. This may seem like a little thing now, but not all that long ago it was perceived to be a big step. “That is an example of our doing customer-independent work that proved to be valuable in the marketplace,” he says, adding, “We generally like to develop things independent of our customers, then bring the customer in and show how we can add value to its products.” That, of course, is about getting ahead of the customer (i.e., the vehicle manufacturer). But Geschke observes, “We want to respond to OEM requirements and desires—but we don’t want to limit ourselves to that.” So JCI invests in end-customer (i.e., the vehicle purchaser) research and behavioral studies, looking for the “little hassles” that may be addressed through new technology development.

From the compass they went to a trip computer. In 1992 JCI became involved in keyless entry, radio frequency-based technology that led to the HomeLink garage door opening system (which has been subsequently expanded to being capable of turning on house lights to turning the cylinder on a deadbolt door lock) in ‘95.

A Strategic Approach. What JCI does in its electronics strategy is perform a gap analysis and then try to determine the best ways to fulfill those needs. Geschke points out that the company performs a gap analysis on its own resources, as well. For example, while JCI designs, develops, and validates all of the electronics that goes into its products, it doesn’t manufacture the electronics. JCI’s manufacturing partner is Jabil Circuits. Similarly, it has no intention of being an electrical distribution system provider; it depends on Yazaki for that. What’s more, it doesn’t intend to become a consumer electronics manufacturer; it works with Philips on that.

While the company plans to move more into electronics, it wants to remain in a niche, it doesn’t want to do mainstream, base commodity products. He calls it “differentiated mainstream.” The objective is to create and develop products that can reduce systems costs or provide more value to the customer.

One of the areas that is of particular interest to JCI is the burgeoning telematics area. About four years ago, they attempted a telematics offering, AutoLink, and discovered that there was much more than they had anticipated, much more than any one company could possibly provide—then or now. Essentially, a telematics system requires the user interface; hardware; network infrastructure; and services. “We found out that this is a highly dynamic, volatile arena—and no one controls it.”

So, once again, it goes to working with other companies, something that it really learned when it was developing the original HomeLink system. A garage door opening system? Geschke explains, “To make HomeLink interoperable we had to work out deals with Genie, Stanley, Chamberlain, and others. We have HomeLink in Europe, as well, where there are even more companies.” He says that they are using the lessons learned from that experience to deal with the array of parties involved with telematics. For example, hands-free telephony.

Employing Bluetooth. Geschke explains, “We are developing BlueConnect. In simplest form, it is another means to provide hands-free cellular.” The “Blue” in that name refers to “Bluetooth,” the wireless technology developed for small form-factor, low-cost personal area networks (i.e., not greater than 10 meters). Bluetooth is being developed in concert by both the telecommunications (e.g., Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia) and computer (e.g., Intel, 3Com, IBM) companies. An intent is to have the means to have ubiquitous connections between things like cell phones, computers, and personal digital assistants. Bluetooth operates on the 2.4 GHz ISM band, so it can be used, license-free, in the United States, most of Europe, and Japan. The bandwidth provided is respectable, offering a raw data rate up to 1Mbps.

So what do we have here?

The proliferation of cell phones is evident. Moves—legislative as well as societal—toward enforcing or encouraging hands-free phone use are mounting. Vehicles are becoming increasingly integrated circuit-intense. Geschke says their research indicates within the 2003-04 timeframe 20% of the installed base of cell phones will use Bluetooth. JCI offers a product called TravelNote. Essentially, this is a digital voice recorder: you’ve got the electronics; you’ve got a speaker and a microphone. BlueConnect is an enhancement of this in that it would be the addition of a Bluetooth node. (Bluetooth is a radio frequency-based technology. “We probably do more short-range RF technology than anyone,” Geschke claims.) The result would be the ability to get into a BlueConnect-equipped car with one’s Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and then to use it to wirelessly connect with the built-in system for hands-free use.

Some people think that the electronics technology should be built in to the vehicle. This is called the “embedded” approach. Geschke thinks that the problem with that is that given the rate of change in the electronics industry compared to automotive—say 18 months versus 36 months—to say nothing of the length of time that a given vehicle is in production (~5 years) and then is out in the fleet (~10 years), there would be a lot of obsolete technology in a vehicle by the time it came to the end of its lifecycle.

With Bluetooth, as the cell phone (or PDA or whatever) becomes more advanced, the vehicle automatically gets more capabilities.

“Fundamentally, does Bluetooth make sense as a technology?” Geschke asks, rhetorically. “Absolutely. Will you see it emerging as it makes sense? Absolutely.”

Will we see Johnson Controls working with other electronics companies to make it happen? Ab--.