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Johnson Controls' BlueConnect module allows users with Bluetooth-enabled phones to make hands-free calls from their vehicles via a sophisticated built-in voice recognition function. It is one of several Bluetooth systems that will enter the market this year, and could be the leading edge of a boom in automotive wireless technology application.

Is This (Finally) the Year of Bluetooth?

Until recently, Bluetooth has been more hype than substance. Now, it seems, conditions have aligned to make it a mass-production reality. But is this enough to make it a "must-have" on future vehicles?

Here’s a marketer’s take on Bluetooth: it’s a revolutionary technology that will allow people to wirelessly connect electronic devices to their cars and do things like make hands-free calls without having to plug anything into anything else. Here’s an engineer’s take: it’s an open wireless standard that uses low-power, short-range (about 35 ft.) radio signals at the unlicensed 2.4 GHz frequency. It has a spread-spectrum, full-duplex signal that hops frequencies at up to 1600 times/sec to reduce interference, and a data transfer rate of about 1 Mbps. Now, here’s the consumer’s take: Great, where is it?

Talk of Bluetooth has been swirling around the automotive industry for several years, but 2003 is the first year that the technology finally will see volume application. For some that is late, but according to Jim Geschke, vice president and general manager of electronics integration at Johnson Controls, Inc., “This is probably the year when Bluetooth is going to pop, and that’s in line with past projections of when we would see large-scale volumes. We are struggling against the ‘hype curve’ because marketing people created unrealistic expectations that were way beyond reality, and when it didn’t happen, expectations fell below reality.” Now Geschke is one of many who think the hype and reality surrounding Bluetooth are about to meet.

What took so long? Marketing hype aside, there have been a lot of obstacles to making Bluetooth ready for mass production, as well as for general acceptance in the automotive industry.

  • Bluetooth penetration in consumer electronics. Building Bluetooth capabilities into vehicles is dependent on having enough Bluetooth-enabled devices in use to take advantage of them. “The wireless and cellular guys have been promising for about two and a half years that Bluetooth would be out on the next generation of their cell phones,” says Dr. Robert W. Schumacher, business line executive for Wireless and Mobile Multimedia at Delphi, “but that didn’t happen until about six months ago. So, we have had a two year delay.” But given the fact that the technology is included in many newer phones, and that people are upgrading to new phones about every eighteen months, market penetration percentages should increase rapidly. Schumacher reckons that the penetration needed to really drive Bluetooth demand in automotive should occur around 2005 or 2006.
  • Setting universal standards. All operating and interface standards for the technology are set by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which includes most of the big name global electronics players. The strength of this approach is that once standards are agreed upon compatibility problems are greatly reduced. The weakness is that a whole lot of companies have to get together and agree in the first place, and that takes time. “It took much longer to standardize software protocols and get profiles defined than was originally thought,” says Martin Thoone, global director of electronics product development for Visteon Corp. In fact, some important protocols like those for voice recognition were not fully defined and accepted until last year. But now that that work is largely completed, quick progress is widely expected. “Standards are magic. They jumpstart industries,” says Delphi’s Schumacher, “When everybody agrees to have the same interfaces, the development time and cost goes down; an incentive is created for others to come in and develop new applications, and the whole market takes off.”
  • Reducing hardware costs. Until recently the cost of the chipsets needed to power Bluetooth functionality were not where systems integrators needed them to be to make a strong business case. But chipmakers have stepped up silicon integration and reduced the chipset costs to a third of their previous level. And with production for the enormous cell phone market now coming on line (it dwarfs automotive applications), costs should drop even further. Johnson Controls’ Geschke sums it up, “More and more functionality on one chip plus higher volumes leads to low costs, and that’s exactly what we are experiencing now.”
  • Another factor that is speeding adoption of Bluetooth is the maturation of user-friendly application development software. Peter Wengert, marketing manager of Microsoft Corp.’s automotive business unit says, “In the past, system integrators had to build their own applications, adaptors and connections on top of our platform. But on the latest version of Windows CE for Automotive the adaptors for Bluetooth are built-in. We’ve taken the headache of having to develop the software and put it in the OS.”
  • Killer Apps Present and Future. The killer app for the initial wave of Bluetooth-enabled vehicles is clearly hands-free phone capability. Research indicates that over half of all cell phone minutes are used from vehicles, and legislation bans using a handset while driving in a growing number of places. So a clear market need has emerged. But, as often happens because of the long development cycles needed for vehicles, aftermarket companies have moved into the void with inelegant solutions. Current cradle systems only accommodate one kind of phone, are hard to upgrade and require a physical docking station. But Bluetooth-based systems can be utilized by any Bluetooth-enabled phone after a brief initialization procedure that “pairs” the phone with the vehicle.

Visteon already has a Bluetooth system available as an option on European models of the BMW X5, 3-Series and 5-Series, and according to Martin Thoone, “has a number of contracts coming up soon.” Delphi will debut its module on the Saab 9-3 this year. And Johnson Controls’ BlueConnect system will soon be in production on an upcoming DaimlerChrysler vehicle, and eventually spread across many DCX vehicle platforms.

There is no Bluetooth application on the horizon that quite stacks up to hands-free phone capability, but one or two may achieve “killer app” status. For example, once a cell phone or PDA is connected to the car it can bring in real-time traffic information, store it in the car’s flash memory and then read it to the driver via text-to-speech. And if the phone has GPS capabilities, it can provide turn-by-turn directions–in effect giving the vehicle a virtual navigation system for a fraction of what a hard-wired unit would cost.

Speaking of cost, the question remains as to whether automakers will be willing to incur the per vehicle cost it will take to install Bluetooth modules on a large scale. Yet the consensus among the system integrators is that this is a matter of when not if. “Our experience is that if you have a value proposition automakers understand they will find a way to get it in the vehicle,” says Geschke, “At the end of the day they have to satisfy the customer and Bluetooth definitely does that.”


What’s In A Name

The name “Bluetooth” comes from the 10th century king Harold Bluetooth who subdued warring factions and united the kingdom of Denmark. However, admittedly perfunctory research shows that Harold’s father, Gorm the Old, actually united Denmark. Harold more or less consolidated his dad’s work. So why the use of “Bluetooth” instead of “Gorm?” Probably because saying you’re from the Gorm Special Interest Group might receive the same reaction as saying you are a plenipotentiary from the Klingon Empire. And where would be the honor in that?