PARK RIDGE, Ill. The auto industry's data bus of the future faces a critical challenge over the next few weeks, as members of an industry consortium decide whether to pay royalties to the technology's developers.
Media Oriented Systems Transport (Most), an optical data bus that's favored by luxury car manufacturers, would almost certainly be written into the industry's multimedia specification in June if not for a 30-cents-per-connection fee required by its founders. But members of the Automotive Multimedia Interface Consortium (AMIC), which includes 12 of the world's biggest automakers, say the connection fee presents a potential hurdle to Most's acceptance. The reason: AMIC calls for all endorsed technologies to be open and royalty-free.
The Most network bus has been gaining prominence among automakers since mid-1997, when Oasis Silicon Systems AG (Karlsruhe, Germany) joined with Becker Automotive Systems (Karlsbad, Germany), BMW and DaimlerChrysler to develop technology for the fiber-optic data bus network. Automakers like the idea of an optical bus because it offers greater speed and bandwidth to carry signals for applications such as CD players, videos, cell phones and automotive PCs.
That's why a growing number of European and American automakers have undertaken Most development programs. At least six have incorporated Most buses in upcoming programs, and BMW plans to introduce the bus in a high-level vehicle in the 2001 model year. Today, eight of the 12 members of AMIC are also associated partners in the not-for-profit Most Corp. (Karlsruhe).
Most is nonetheless a hot-button topic within AMIC because of the royalty fees and because the consortium requires unanimous approval of all members for a specification to be accepted. "There's still a lot of discussion within AMIC of how and when we can endorse Most," said Dave McNamara, manager of research and vehicle technology for multimedia applications at Ford Motor Co.
Incorporation into an AMIC specification is considered critical for automakers and vendors alike. AMIC is working to encourage development of a Society of Automotive Engineers standard for multimedia devices, such as navigation systems, cell phones, pagers, video systems, CD players, personal digital assistants and automotive PCs. A standard would enable car makers to work more effectively with vendors because it would mean that suppliers' products could be designed for plug-and-play installation. As a result, Most Corp. needs an endorsement from AMIC which includes BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Fiat, General Motors, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen if it expects to gain wide use in the auto industry.
Currently, however, automakers have definite plans to endorse only one network bus: the IDB-C (Intelligent transportation systems Data Bus-CAN). Their reasons: familiarity and cost. "Everyone is comfortable with the CAN [controller-area network] bus," said Andre Oberschachtsiek, manager of the electronics research laboratory for Volkswagen of America (Sunnyvale, Calif.). "The interface is simple and there's no concern over royalty fees."
In the long run, automakers know they must also prepare for the coming of fiber-optic data buses, such as Most. The primary advantage of such systems is speed. Most, for example, offers a maximum data rate of 24.8 Mbits/second, compared with 250 kbits/s for CAN buses, making it about 100 times faster than CAN devices.
Automakers say fiber-optic speeds are particularly important in autos that use multiple video channels, which allow backseat occupants to watch separate video images. There, they say, the data streams grow so large that bandwidth and speed become more critical than ever.
Proponents of Most say that the fiber-optic bus will eventually be more cost-effective than CAN buses in those applications, too. They claim Most will let automakers eliminate analog audio and video cables, as well as buffer amplifiers and switches, thus lowering overall installation costs.
In the near term, however, automakers know that CAN buses are more cost-effective, particularly for automobiles that don't have high-performance data requirements. That's one more reason why AMIC wants to endorse more than one data bus.
"Requiring everyone to put a fiber-optic data bus in a low-end vehicle doesn't make sense," said Scott Andrews of Toyota, a founding member of AMIC. "By the same token, for some vehicles, a fiber-optic data bus may actually be more cost-effective."
Pressure to negotiate
For those reasons, automakers say they are compelled to negotiate with Most Corp. and reach some kind of agreement over royalty fees and intellectual-property issues. For now, Most foundation members say they want the connection fees as a means of paying for patents.
"AMIC has accepted that it will have to pay for intellectual property," said Christian Thiel, a BMW multimedia engineer who works on the Most steering committee. "It would be ideal to get everything for free, but that's not how the world works."
Because Most Corp. has 54 member companies that have already signed explicit agreements, it will not back away from its near-term royalty requirement, Thiel said. "If we waived the royalty fees, we would actually endanger the structure of Most," he said.
One key area of compromise between the two sides may lie in Most's long-term plan. In time, the company may be willing to lower the 30-cents-per-connection fee. "As soon as the volume goes up, the fee will go down," said Herbert Hetzel, chief executive officer of Oasis Silicon Systems AG. Hetzel said the long-term fee is still undecided, but he believes it could eventually be as low as "a few pennies" per interface chip, or connection.
In the meantime, experts say Most will still enjoy considerable success, possibly reaching as many as 10 million nodes per year by 2005. And that success, which is mostly among European automakers, may ultimately help Most gain an endorsement from AMIC.
"It's really picking up steam in Europe," said Paul Hansen, publisher of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics (Rye, N.H.). "I'd be surprised if AMIC doesn't find a way to endorse Most."