PARK RIDGE, Ill. Bluetooth radio moved a step closer to automotive production Wednesday (Aug. 21), as one supplier rolled out an automotive-grade Bluetooth chip and car makers said they have shifted their wireless network efforts into high gear.
Cambridge Silicon Radio Ltd. (Richardson, Texas) said that its new Bluecore-2 External chip, unveiled Wednesday (Aug. 21), offers the processing power to run a hands-free cell phone in an automobile and the ruggedness to operate in environments ranging from - 40 degrees C to +85 degrees C.
Automotive engineers say that the availability of such chips is the key to bringing Bluetooth's short-range radio technology into vehicles, which is why groups such as the Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration (AMI-C) and the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) said they are accelerating their efforts to create a specification that would make Bluetooth robust enough for widespread use in automotive applications.
"The ability to withstand extreme temperature and vibration is what has kept a lot of Bluetooth-based products from moving into the automobile up to now," said Frank Viquez, senior analyst for Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (Oyster Bay, N.Y.), and author of a recently released report on automotive wireless networks. "But we're starting to see a significant change in that."
Cambridge Silicon Radio joined Infineon Technologies AG (Munich, Germany) and Broadcom Corp. (Irvine, Calif.), which have also introduced Bluetooth chips that operate in automotive temperature ranges.
Such chips are expected to form the electronic backbone of a number of Bluetooth-based automotive systems that are planned for production in the next few years by automakers in Europe, Asia and North America. Chrysler Group will roll out the first such system this fall, when it introduces an aftermarket version of its highly publicized UConnect Bluetooth-based, hands-free communication system.
Experts say, however, that hands-free cell phones may just be the beginning of Bluetooth's automotive efforts. They expect the short-range RF chips to also play a role in automotive stereo systems and dealer service diagnostic equipment, as well as in audio and video systems that can download music and movies from convenience store kiosks.
Industry observers said to expect explosive growth in such Bluetooth-based automotive technologies during the next five years. Allied Business Intelligence predicts that general Bluetooth hardware sales will reach $1.5 billion by the end of 2003 and $6 billion by 2006.
Similarly, Cambridge Silicon Radio predicts that by 2005, 15 to 20 million vehicles will be Bluetooth-equipped in the United States, while 45 million will be equipped worldwide.
"We expect Bluetooth to be present on one-fifth of all new vehicles worldwide by 2007," said Ken Noblitt, business development director at Cambridge Silicon Radio.
Automakers say that Bluetooth radio, which operates in an unlicensed frequency band at 2.4 GHz, offers potential for consumers, especially in light of recent legislation that would force cell phone operation to be hands free.
Companies such as Chrysler said they plan to use Bluetooth chips to enable handheld cell phones to communicate with the dashboard. Using their technical scheme, drivers could lay personal cell phones on the passenger seat next to them, while talking to a windshield-mounted microphone and listening to their phone conversations through their car's speaker system.
Such systems eliminate the need for drivers to hold their phones to their ear and manually dial their keypads. They also allow consumers to use their personal handheld phones in the automobile, instead of using phones that are permanently embedded in the vehicle.
Bluetooth radio is the enabler for such systems, engineers say.
"For automotive use, Bluetooth has an edge because it is a short-range, point-to-point communication medium," said Pom Malhotra, AMI-C program manager and a General Motors engineer. "It's also fairly low cost compared to other solutions and fairly low complexity, too."
Still, adoption of Bluetooth by the automotive community has been relatively slow up to now, mainly because automotive engineers face reliability requirements and environmental challenges that aren't generally seen on the desktop. Automotive customers, most of whom spend more than $20,000 for new vehicles, are typically intolerant of the computing glitches that are considered acceptable on the desktop. Automobiles also strike bumps and potholes, while also subjecting electronics to temperatures ranging from - 40 degrees F to 185 degrees F inside the vehicle cabin.
"If you want to use a phone or any hands-free electronic mechanism inside the car, certain technical issues need to be taken care of," Malhotra said.
That's why Cambridge Silicon Radio released its BlueCore-2 External chip. The chip, which already is in mass production, distinguishes itself through its ability to run a hands-free profile and other protocol layers, such as the host controller interface, without the need for a separate processor. Cambridge Silicon is offering a reference design, which includes the chip and supporting circuitry, to automakers and tier-one suppliers that are working on Bluetooth-based systems. The company said that the reference design is being employed by automakers in North America, Europe and Asia in future Bluetooth-based electronics programs.
Cambridge Silicon Radio also announced Monday (Aug. 19) that its chip has been incorporated in the Bluetooth Voice Box made by Uniwill Computer Corp. (Chung-Li Industrial Park, Taiwan). The Bluetooth Voice Box, which incorporates a microphone and speaker, enables in-car hands-free mobile phone operation, even when a mobile phone is in a bag or coat pocket.
Other manufacturers have also announced chips aimed at the automotive temperature range. Infineon Technologies AG's BlueMoon Single and Broadcom's BCM2033 Single-Chip Bluetooth System are both said to operate at temperatures ranging between -40 degrees C and +105 degrees C. Infineon's chip has also been certified for operation by the Bluetooth SIG for temperatures between - 40 degrees C and +105 degrees C, the company said.
Reliability-conscious automakers said they are encouraged by the availability of such chips, but caution that they first want to deal with technical issues that will arise inevitably.
AMI-C wants to create specifications that would standardize the way drivers interface with Bluetooth-based products. Such specifications could help reduce the cognitive load on drivers, they say. AMI-C said it also plans to deal with electromagnetic interference issues and interference from other devices, such as satellite radios, operating at or near the same frequencies.
"At this time, we're still not sure that out-of-bandwidth communication from Bluetooth devices and satellite radios wouldn't interfere with each other," Malhotra said.
Other Bluetooth suppliers are also examining issues such as security. Bluetooth devices in cars could broadcast signals that potentially could be intercepted by neighboring vehicles, said Gordon Mella, director of marketing for Rappore Technologies Inc. (Orem, Utah). "Most people are not very well versed in what it means to lock down your ports," Mella said. "But you need to give users confidence that hackers cannot tap into their personal networks."
Rappore on Monday (Aug. 19) introduced a software technology known as Rappore Shield v1.0 that could be used in Bluetooth applications to deal with potential security problems.
AMI-C engineers said they are also working with L.M. Ericsson, which makes Bluetooth chips, to adapt Bluetooth technology for automotive applications. AMI-C said it also is cooperating with engineers from all of its automotive member companies the world's biggest automakers among them on Bluetooth technology development.
"Every one of our members is looking very closely at Bluetooth," Malhotra said. "That tells us that the demand for this technology is there."
Industry experts predict that the demand will spawn more new chip technologies. "It was possible for chip-set makers to meet automotive requirements before now, but they didn't do it because there hasn't been a demand for it," said Viquez of Allied Business Intelligence. "So now we'll probably start seeing other players announcing automotive-grade chip technologies."