YPSILANTI, Mich. After more than 30 months of technical struggles, Cadillac has pulled the plug on its much-publicized Cadillac Infotainment System and has instead chosen to use General Motors' wireless OnStar service for Internet access and e-mail capabilities.
The move, revealed quietly by the automaker, raises questions about the shape of future infotainment systems and the need for Internet access in automobiles.
Some observers theorized that GM had tried to pack too much functionality into its system and thus fell victim to latency problems that caused its dashboard display to operate sluggishly. Many industry engineers, however, believe that the giant automaker may have simply underestimated the difficulty of bringing PC-like features to a car.
"The lesson here is to keep your mouth shut until you're really ready," said a telematics engineer with a competing company. "Transferring technology from the consumer electronics world to the automotive industry is very, very difficult."
Cadillac stressed that it is not abandoning its plan to bring navigation, e-mail and Internet capabilities to its product line; rather, it is changing the shape of its delivery mechanism. Instead of an all-encompassing system with a single dashboard-based display, the luxury-automotive division will offer a new DVD-based product that will help drivers with navigation, while OnStar's Virtual Advisor, which uses no visual display, will provide Internet and e-mail capabilities for those who want them.
The new configuration simplifies engineering by employing a so-called thin-client model, in which some features are served by off-board computing power.
By separating the two, Cadillac believes it has reduced its risks. "Until we are comfortable that the engineers have resolved all the issues, we're not going to bring out the Infotainment System," said Mark Clawson, assistant brand manager for Cadillac's DeVille. "We have too much at stake. Even if we satisfy 50 percent of the people, we don't want to bring out a product that has the potential to alienate customers."
Chill of uncertainty
Cadillac's decision to back away from its system throws a chill of uncertainty over the budding automotive telematics industry. In April 2000, GM's luxury-car division announced that it would be the first to place an automotive PC in a production car, and it demonstrated the Cadillac Infotainment System for industry analysts and media in a special preview in Colorado Springs, Colo. At the time, the company said it would roll out the system in September 2000 in the Cadillac Seville and DeVille models.
GM initially said that the system was the result of a 19-month corporate effort involving more than 60 engineers. The automaker's engineers worked closely on it with counterparts from Delphi Automotive Systems (Troy, Mich.), who did much of the hardware engineering, and Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.), which provided its Windows CE operating system.
When Cadillac rolled out its 2001 models last year, however, the Infotainment System was unavailable. The GM division announced it would delay the product's release "until sometime in 2001." At a recent GM product preview, however, company representatives said the concept has been shelved indefinitely.
GM engineers now admit that the system wasn't yet ready for production 15 months ago, mainly because it was plagued by minor "operating latencies" that caused the dashboard display to lag slightly behind actual system operations. Display refresh times were said to be measured in milliseconds, when they should have been measured in microseconds. Engineers from GM, Delphi and Microsoft subsequently embarked on an effort to fix the sluggishness, which they feared would alienate automotive customers.
Engineers now attribute the problem to many sources, including the microprocessor, the operating system and a proliferation of software applications.
"We were using a microprocessor that isn't very fast," said Reza Aghamoali, infotainment engineer for GM at its Great Lake Technology Center (Flint, Mich.). "There was a noticeable delay time when you went from activity to activity."
The system, designed by Delphi Automotive, used a Hitachi HS3 microprocessor. Engineers said they couldn't have redeployed a faster microprocessor, such as the HS4, because they were already too deep into the development cycle.
Some engineers familiar with the project, however, claim that the real sticking point was the Windows CE operating system. The design team is believed to have employed Windows CE version 2.11 or 2.12. Both versions lack the real-time capabilities of the more recent version 3.0. Still, some engineers believe that any version of CE would have been problematic.
"When you come right down to it, the problem was the operating system," said an engineer who asked not to be named. "I don't care if Windows CE has been updated; it would still be a problem."
But engineers from GM, Microsoft and Delphi all said the latency issue has since been resolved, and some were baffled by Cadillac's reticence to use its Infotainment System.
"The Windows CE implementation has passed all of the [quality assurance] and technical tests that were set forth by Delphi on the basis of GM's requirements," said Ed Lansinger, a product manager for Microsoft's Embedded & Appliance Platforms Group. "There is no Windows CE-related software reason for the system's not coming to market."
Delphi Automotive also said it plans to keep using Windows CE in its automotive infotainment products.
GM's technical teams, which did much of the development work for Cadillac, said that they continue to keep the Infotainment product in the company's "technical portfolio," which means that it could still be used by Buick, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saturn or any other vehicle division of GM.
Some engineers believe that Cadillac is being particularly careful because it has a very demanding customer base. "If they didn't bring out the product as promised, that's only because they were being protective of that Infotainment brand pillar," said one engineer.
Indeed, Cadillac executives said they plan to introduce a vehicle information product with a dashboard display when they roll out the Cadillac CTS this fall. The CTS, which succeeds the Cadillac Catera, is aimed at a younger audience than the DeVille or Seville. Still, Cadillac executives said the company has no plans to move the Cadillac Infotainment System to the CTS.
Cadillac also recently announced that it will offer customers an optional, DVD-based navigation system with a dashboard-based touchscreen. The DVD system, which holds all of the navigational information for the entire United States on a single DVD disk, replaces trunk-based systems that used a stack of as many as nine CDs. The system also lets drivers play DVD movies while the car is in park.
Meanwhile, Cadillac will offer Internet and e-mail capabilities to its customers through OnStar's Virtual Advisor, a service that enables drivers to access stock quotes, sports scores, news headlines, weather and e-mail through cellular phones and voice-recognition systems.
Question of demand
The move raises questions about whether GM is leaning toward so-called "thin-client" technology, in which off-board power is used to process compute-intensive voice recognition and Internet data. Virtual Advisor, for example, can employ gigabytes of off-board server storage and higher-speed microprocessors.
But Delphi executives said they don't believe the Cadillac decision reflects a preference for either thin- or thick-client technology. "There's no 'one-size-fits-all' mentality," said Robert Schumacher, general director of mobile multimedia for Delphi Automotive.
Some industry analysts believe technology questions may ultimately have had little to do with Cadillac's decision. "They might be realizing that consumer demand for these kinds of products isn't as great as they thought," said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for GartnerG2 (San Jose, Calif.).