Steve Ohr spent time with the second largest supplier of analog and mixed-signal parts. A talent for GPS and multimedia were just two of the things he found.
Italian radio jams FM stations about as close together on the dial as the Italian highways cram their cars. In Milano, the home of La Scala opera house and Italian grand opera, the radio produces an endless stream of rock and disco music, with screaming commercials in between. What I remember listening to was NOT a Puccini tearjerker, but a thumpy electronic disco song whose English lyrics, recited in a monotone, were something like, "You only say you love me when you're drunk."
In Agrate, a suburb of Milano, I had an update on the multimedia car. STMicroelectronics was experimenting with a Fiat, configuring its console for hands-free speech control, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Internet navigation, and a variety of rear-seat entertainments, including surround-sound audio and DVD playback. It would keep the kids entertained on a long car trip, I thought (though it's been a while - 14 years, maybe - since I had THAT problem). Better than the seemingly endless cassette loops of "Frog and Toad are friends" I remember playing for my daughter as a toddler.
The future car experiments were an excellent showcase for STM's engineering and manufacturing talents. The company has always been well connected with the automotive industry here in Europe, but its posture on the Intelligent Data Bus (IDB) and its achievements in GPS (which uses triangulated satellite transmissions to monitor the car's position, accurate to within 10 meters), automotive PCs, multimedia and speech recognition are undoubtedly less well known in the States.
And that's a shame. The company ships almost as much analog and mixed-signal products as Texas Instruments, according to Dataquest. TI was the No. 1 supplier of analog and mixed-signal parts, with $2.8 billion in 1999 shipments - roughly 10.7 percent of a $26.2-billion market. STM was number two with $2.3 billion. In the United States, STM has two overworked people interfacing with the press. TI, in contrast, has an aggressive press agency and a large internal staff. Thus, everybody knows about TI's new thrusts into the data converter market, its strengths in digital signal processors and president Tom Engibous' conjecture at the analysts' meeting that his company can be bigger than Intel in the next five years. Few people know about STM's near-bulletproof speech recognizer, developed in conjunction with Lernout and Haupspie, and announced in Europe on April 4.
The hands-free car kit, also developed with Altec Lansing and Keyware Technologies, is based on STM's "Euterpe" speech recognizer chip (the TDA7550), a 24-bit fixed-point DSP and an STM10 processor core. The kit supports voice-activated dialing, speech readouts of text messages, noise and echo canceling, and speaker verification. The car kit includes the L&H ASR311 voice-recognition package (plus the TTS3000 text-to-speech conversion software). Altec Lansing contributes the "Clarix" noise-suppression software. Keyware is responsible for biometric verification. The car kit works with Telit Mobile Terminals, a cellular service provider in Italy, which is why we haven't seen too much of it in the States.
In the experimental car I saw, the voice-recognition system - a command and control system with a fixed vocabulary - was used to place voice calls to the Internet, as well as to call people. The telematics console included a color LCD for downloaded navigation information, as well as for reporting the status of vehicle systems and triggering in-vehicle entertainment. (The console I saw utilized an STM40 PC on a chip, an x86-architecture and the Riva 128DV graphics controller. A version of the PCI bus is used to interconnect devices within the console.)
A GPS system (based on STM's STM5600 1.575/1.555-GHz GPS radio receiver and STM20GP6 microcontroller) would be used for both navigation and emergency response. The thinking process for carmakers is that the emergency systems would be electronically connected to the telematics console. A head-on collision (that is, deployment of an airbag) would automatically cause the car's cell phone to dial a 911 equivalent and transmit the car's position to summon an ambulance.
A more mundane application of the wireless connectivity in the telematics console would be automatic reception of traffic information (with the suggestions of alternate routes where roads are less jammed), and electronic toll collection.
Initially, this equipment would go into high-end cars, said Aldo Romano, the STM vice president and general manager in charge of automotive products. It would be optional on midrange cars in 2003 and thus might achieve a 30 percent penetration, he speculated. By 2005 there would be wide deployment, even in low-end cars, and by 2010 EVERY car would have GPS navigation and a telematics console for initiating an emergency response, he said.
The entertainment systems in this future car I looked at were among the most imaginative, reflecting the company's expertise in MPEG decoding (for digital video and audio) and consumer audio. The car was equipped with a CD/DVD player (based on STM's Omega Sti550x DVD decoder chips), an FM-AM radio (the TDA7421), rear seat LCD displays, power amplifiers and speakers for Dolby Digital surround sound. (The Crystal products division of Cirrus Logic in Austin, Texas, had also demonstrated an outrageously imaginative car audio capability at last year's Consumer Electronics Show. Crystal's car audio demonstrator, based on its DSPs, would allow automakers and after-market enthusiasts to electronically tune the car's sound system to the particular acoustics and road environment of the car cabin, and to the musical tastes of the buyer, before the car actually left the factory.) STM's audio playback system demonstrated talents in all parts of the signal-processing chain.
The power amplifiers I saw were built on custom devices with four 45-W amplifiers on one chip, fabricated with STM's famous "BCD" process (a technology that puts Bipolar driver transistors, CMOS logic, and lateral D-MOS power FETs on one substrate). The audio amplifier chips are not designed as digital Class D, but rather a Class G, according to vice president Bruno Murari, STM's chief of technology and father of the BCD process. Class G functions similarly to Class A-B in that its output devices operate push-pull to produce an analog output, Murari (who happens to be an audio buff) told me over an elegant lunch. Unlike A-B amplifiers, in which there is overlap between "pushing" and "pulling" devices at the zero crossing of the audio waveform, Class G devices completely switch at (or before) the zero crossing. That is, one device in the push-pull configuration will "pull" current in one direction; the other device will "pull" in the opposite direction, but they are never turned on at the same time. Thus, the Class G amplifier will operate much more efficiently than Class A-B types. This would minimize the heat sink requirement for audio amplifiers in confined places - such as powered speakers in automotive door panels.
The controller area network (CAN) bus was used to connect the telematics console to the other electronics parts of the car (the airbag, ABS, odometer, body system and engine controls). A separate multimedia bus - using a fiber optic link in a star topology - connected the console with the tuners, DVD changer, Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) tuner, power amplifiers, rear-seat LCD displays, and perhaps a rear-view camera using a CMOS imager. The passive star topology, called MML for mobile multimedia link, connects up to 256 nodes on a 110-Mbit/second serial data path. STM is a member of the Car Multimedia Open Bus forum, a diverse group that includes auto makers like BMW, Daimler Benz and Fiat, as well as providers of audio entertainment equipment like Alpine and Pioneer, cell phone makers like Nokia and Ericsson and a host of semiconductor makers.
In the U.S., the Society of Automotive Engineers has for some time been working on standardizing IDB, an open network that will enable car makers and after-market suppliers to offer plug-and-play capability for the latest in-dash car electronics (see, for example, "Intelligent data bus plans under way," EE Times, July 12, 1999).The IDB Forum (under the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association) is shepherding the standard, which initially includes the IDB-T (for telematics) implementation, a 115.2-kbit/s, RS-485-like, multidrop serial bus. The proposed IDB-M (for multimedia) provides links - like STM's MML-Bus - of up to 400 Mbits/s on copper wire (up to 110 Mbits/s on plastic fiber).
I have to confess that the Italian concept car, which resembled the Chrysler PT Cruiser, made me want to get in and drive. The stick shift was not on the floor, but seemed to rise from some place in the center console - which left lots of legroom for a center seat. I would not have the brass to drive on Italian highways, though, where drivers weave in and out of traffic at 80 mph - leaving about six inches of clearance between vehicles.