DETROIT Java technology, viewed only a few years ago as a laboratory curiosity by sectors of the car market, will grab the spotlight this week at the Society of Automotive Engineers 2002 World Congress and Digital Car Conference.
After three years of testing by the notoriously conservative automotive-engineering community, Java is emerging as the software foundation in multimedia and telematics products ranging from in-car cell phones to navigation systems to CD players, as well as digital radios and "infotainment" systems, engineers say. Increasingly, the Sun Microsystems Inc. programming language is finding a place in vehicle programs at such giants as General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Audi, and it is believed to be in development at BMW, Ford and others.
"It looks like Java is the technology of choice right now for the automotive telematics market and for in-car computing platforms," said Chris Lanfear, manager of the embedded-systems research group at Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.). "It's a ready-made technology and fits right into the auto market's needs."
For its part, Microsoft Corp. is maneuvering to position Windows CE as an alternative to Java in cars. The software giant will announce Monday (March 4) that version 3.5 of that operating system is the software foundation for BMW's new 7 Series' iDrive, a front-seat multimedia system first displayed as a concept at the Auto Show a year ago.
Automakers and vendors at this year's conference plan to demonstrate Java's advantages, most of which fall into the categories of interoperability and easy updating. IBM will demo its J9 Java virtual machine (JVM); Motorola will discuss Java's role in its iRadio concept; QNX will display IBM's J9 in its QNX Neutrino RTOS; and Wind River will team with Sun Microsystems to show Tornado for Car Infotainment, which has a Java component.
Those demos come on the heels of major Java-related announcements by automakers and vendors in recent months. Last October, Chrysler Group, backed by a team that includes IBM, Intel, QNX and AT&T Wireless, unveiled a Java-based, hands-free telematics concept. And last month, Delphi Automotive Systems (Troy, Mich.) inked a deal with IBM to use the J9 virtual machine in future products. Delphi is saying only that the first will hit the streets in 2003, while a second is in development with a major automotive OEM.
The explosion of interest in Java is spurred largely by its reputation for "write once, run anywhere," which engineers believe will foster a common platform that will enable vendors to easily add rich sets of information-related applications.
"Three years ago we wanted to see what all the hype was about, so we started looking into Java," said J.D. Richardson, principal technical fellow at Delphi Delco Automotive Systems (Kokomo, Ind.). "We found that the write-once, run-anywhere claim was true."
After comparing Java virtual machines from several vendors, Delphi engineers selected IBM's J9 because of its small memory footprint, Richardson said. Delphi tested the Java programming language and virtual machine in demonstration concepts, including computing platforms for third-party apps and voice control systems, and found that Java fulfilled its needs. The company plans to employ it in a number of upcoming projects.
Java's key ingredient, vendors say, is its use of the virtual machine, which essentially acts as a middle layer between the RTOS and third-party applications. By enabling those apps to run on any RTOS and virtually any hardware platform, the virtual machine lets automakers and tier-one vendors leverage the innovation of other companies.
Using Java middleware as a solution, vendors such as IBM believe they can quickly integrate electronic systems into vehicles. The company openly challenges automakers to bring hardware devices to its labs for a quick primer in Java engineering.
"We've had automobile manufacturers show up at our door with a black box and a rental car, and we tell them we can integrate the device into their telematics platform," said Angus McIntyre, product-marketing manager for IBM Corp.'s Websphere Studio Device Developer (Toronto). "We run a cable out the door, connect it to the CAN bus or MOST bus in the car and show them how to integrate their box into the vehicle."
For vendors and system integrators, the real value of Java is said to be simplicity and speed. Because apps don't need to be rewritten for every new hardware platform and RTOS, they usually can be engineered into a product in a matter of days.
For telematics platform providers like Xata Corp. (Burnsville, Minn.), such capabilities are key to enabling customers to realize the benefit of telematics products. Xata, which supplies telematics hardware to trucking lines, is using Java middleware because Java allows its engineers to update and download applications to truckers on the fly, said CEO Bill Flies.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is working with automotive vendors on the application of its common-language run-time (CLR) environment, which could compete with Java. Like the Java virtual machine, the CLR enables write-once, run-anywhere, Microsoft says. Using the company's .Net strategy, developers can write code in languages such as Microsoft's C-Sharp and generate an "executable" that could run on any CLR.
The company said it plans to release a beta version of Windows CE.Net operating system with CLR integrated, probably in the next few weeks.
By providing a direct competitor to Java, Microsoft could be a creating stronger position for its Windows CE for Automotive OS, still widely used by automakers for telematics and infotainment applications. Although Windows CE is already compatible with Java, industry analysts believe that an associated Java-like middle layer could help its popularity in the long run.
Microsoft executives said that CE is gaining strength in the automotive sector, having been integrated into 13 vehicle lines, with six more expected by the end of this year.