Two big trends in automotive electronics: in-car entertainment and wireless connectivity are merging to make vehicles full-fledged “nodes” on the infotainment superhighway.
While many people were slogging their way through Motown’s snow-clogged streets for the North American International Auto Show, some of us were in sun-drenched Las Vegas for a show that is to consumer electronics companies what NAIAS is to auto companies. CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, is where every consumer electronics company that wants to create a buzz comes to introduce their gizmos. Even Bill Gates jets in from Redmond to show off what Microsoft has planned for those who can’t spend enough time in Best Buy or Circuit City. Lately, some automotive suppliers have realized that just as they need to be in Detroit for NAIAS, they also need to be in Vegas for CES. The growth in popularity of rear entertainment and navigation systems coupled with the promise of Internet connection in the car via Bluetooth-enabled cell phones and WiFi hotspots made these suppliers—and their customers, be they OEMs or those aforementioned Best Buy habitués—recognize that a goodly portion of their future will be defined by the two trends of connectivity and in-car entertainment. The long-heralded “connected car” is becoming something other than marketing vaporware—at least so it seemed in certain spots within the Las Vegas Convention Center . . .
Satellite TV for the car. For hard-core couch potatoes the ability to watch DVDs in the back seat is meager consolation for being severed from their satellite dishes while on long drives. With that market in mind, Delphi Corp. (Troy, MI) is developing a flat satellite antenna that can receive 100+ channels while on the move. Though satellite TV antennas for vehicles aren’t new, current models are huge, ungainly domes meant for use only on RVs. Delphi’s prototype fits neatly between the headliner and roofline of an SUV without any protuberances. According to Delphi, it is taking a considerable amount of development primarily because tracking a geo-stationary satellite from a moving vehicle is a devilishly tricky business, since unlike home dishes, the antenna has to constantly adjust itself to receive an uninterrupted signal. To further complicate matters, the antenna cannot move up and down since it is encased in a module that is only three inches deep, making it difficult to track the satellite’s elevation. Program manager Ross Olney explains that his team gets past the elevation obstacle by using a sophisticated phased array technology to accomplish the tracking electronically rather than through physical movement. He goes on to say that fitting all of the electronics into the slim package parameters is largely a matter of consolidation and miniaturization that has only been possible in the last year or so.
Though the unit does not impinge on interior space or aerodynamics, it would require special treatment in mass production. Since any metal covering would block the antenna’s signal reception, holes must be blanked in the roof and structural cross members re-routed. Even the small amount of metal in metallic paint is a no-no. (The prototype unit is covered with a frosted Lexan panel that makes it look like an opaque sunroof from above.) But the benefits could be worth the tradeoffs for automakers, since in addition to ESPN on the go, the next step according to Olney is broadband Internet access via satellite. Which, among other things, means never having to leave your spam at home.
Built-in PCs. Visteon’s vision for the rear entertainment system is to turn it into a computer. It rolled into CES with a gadget-festooned Hummer H2, equipped with large flat panel displays embedded in the headrests that double as removable tablet PCs. Both WiFi and Bluetooth compatible, the tablets can be used to access wireless networks for information and entertainment downloads, in addition to taking notes and creating spreadsheets. They can also be programmed for more mundane tasks like activating garage doors, and home lighting and heating systems. The only problem with the concept is that you have to have massive headrests like those on the Hummer to get a tablet to fit, otherwise you end up with something more akin to an embedded PDA.
Wireless Power. The irony inherent in the rise of wireless devices is that they can’t seem to get rid of what is often called “the last wire”: the umbilical to the power outlet. Visteon may have snipped it. Its contactless charging pad delivers electric power through the air. Mounted on the lid of the center console, the textured faux leather pad can charge as many handheld devices as can fit on it, regardless of voltage differences. According to Visteon design engineer Michael Andrews, the pad transmits power via magnetic induction, so there is no chance of users getting an electric shock. “You can lick it if you want and you still won’t get a shock,” he offers helpfully. The pad’s technology is mature and ready for commercialization, but here’s the rub: it requires devices that have been fitted with a specially designed transducer that allows them to absorb the airborne power. Without that the pad is just another place to put your keys. The contactless charging technology behind the pad was originally developed by Splashpower Ltd. (Cambridge, UK), which partnered with Visteon on the prototype.
T-Box. Although Microsoft has all the software in place to make the connected car a reality, it can’t jump start the hardware suppliers and OEMs to install the physical units it needs to get everything hooked up. So, it just built it’s own. The T-Box is a telematics module that Peter Wengert, marketing manager at Microsoft’s Automotive Business Unit, says demonstrates what can be done in cars right now. It connects with the serial bus so that it can download diagnostic data from engine sensors; is Bluetooth and WiFi enabled so that it can receive and send information over wireless networks; and has built-in voice recognition so drivers can issue commands hands-free. And while many high-tech companies could probably cobble together such a unit, Wengert explains that a big part of the T-Box exercise is showing that it can be done cost-effectively. He says that Microsoft can build the T-Box for about $100/unit, which implies that a hardware expert with an optimized production process could do it for a lot less. But why do this now? “A year ago you couldn’t easily get data to the car wirelessly,” says Wengert, “But there is now a flood of phones that can act as data portals to the Internet, and the number of 802.11 [WiFi] networks have grown tremendously.” As to whether Microsoft is impatient enough to actually start manufacturing the T-Box, he simply says, “We’ll have more news soon.”