BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. The Automotive Multimedia Interface Collaboration (AMI-C) said this week that it will roll out the second release of its specification in December, sparking hope that the auto industry can soon begin building dashboard products that will share a common platform.
If automakers adopt the specification, it will standardize in-vehicle electronics, thus providing a common interface for the addition of hands-free cell phones, navigation systems, CD players, DVD systems, video screens, digital radios and a host of other electronic products.
"Now we'll have a common highway in the car for all of the services to take advantage of," said Henry Muyshondt, general manager of business development for Oasis Silicon Systems (Austin, Texas). "Rather than each car company having its own proprietary way of doing things, there will now be one way."
Developers of the specification said that it will differ from the first release (unveiled in January 2001) in that it will do more than provide general direction to the industry. The new release, they said, will incorporate information that's detailed enough for engineers to begin designing products to the common interfaces it describes.
"This will be the first substantive release that will allow engineers to start working on designs that can be used with AMI-C interfaces," said Paul Hansen, publisher of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics. "Finally, we are getting some real specifications."
Release 2 will include enabling specifications for vehicle interfaces, communication models, common message sets and physical layers. It will also incorporate specifications for core Java application interfaces, vehicle services APIs and human-machine interface APIs. Performance and design specifications will be included for Bluetooth networks, 1394 automotive networks, MOST (a fiber-optic bus) networks and Java-based host platforms.
The collaboration, which includes nine major automakers from around the world, said that the AMI-C architecture will support modular hardware and software systems that would be easy to expand and configure.
If the specification is widely used, it would provide a common platform, enabling automakers to easily plug and play new vendor products. It would also allow suppliers to build only one version of a product, such as a CD player or hands-free phone system, rather than designing a proprietary version for each automaker.
Engineers ultimately hope that AMI-C's standard approach will encourage suppliers to roll out more new dashboard technology at lower prices, much as software vendors have rolled out a proliferation of new products for PCs during the past 20 years.
Engineers say that a standards-based approach will also dramatically cut development times for automakers.
"If an automotive company chooses to put a gateway into its vehicle and develop a modular architecture, then it can leverage the work AMI-C has already done in defining the interface specifications," said Pom Malhotra, program manager for AMI-C.
AMI-C members said at a press conference this week that the time is right for the introduction of release 2, mainly because the expectations of the market are now paralleling the actual capabilities of automotive multimedia technologies. The expectations and the reality have both followed the classic "hype curve," which describes periods of inflated expectations, followed by a "trough of disillusionment," AMI-C officials said. The industry is now on a slope of enlightenment, in which the remaining players will understand the real potential of automotive multimedia technology, they said.
AMI-C officials also said that complaints about the organization's lack of progress over the past four years were caused in part by the auto industry's overeagerness to incorporate multimedia technology, and in part by AMI-C's efforts to reach a consensus among its members on all technical issues. The organization made sure that all eight of its member companies Fiat, Ford, Honda, General Motors, Nissan, PSA Peugeot Citroen, Renault and Toyota were in 100 percent agreement on all technical decisions.
"Consensus-building is painful," Malhotra said. "It takes cooperation, compromise and trust. But, over time, it's the only approach that leads to long-lasting standards."
AMI-C officials admitted that the process of consensus-building resulted in the specification coming together slower than many members would have liked, and ultimately may have led to the loss of three members DaimlerChrysler, BMW and Volkswagen. AMI-C members believe that such difficulties were to be expected, given the fact that automakers have always been concerned that their cooperation would violate antitrust laws.
"In the beginning, no one trusted each other," Malhotra said. "No one wanted to sign anything that would take them down a path that was better for their competitor than for them."
Malhotra added, however, that the loss of the three German automakers did not significantly affect the incorporation of the fiber-optic media-oriented systems transport bus that they supported. MOST, he said, has been written into release 2 of the specification and is expected to be used by automakers that need a high-bandwidth multimedia bus.
AMI-C plans to continue working with the German automakers, even if they don't return as member companies. "It's important that we harmonize now, because if we don't do it now, we might end up going in different directions," Malhotra said.
The organization plans to begin the third phase of its specifications-building process next year. Additions include new profiles for Bluetooth devices (beyond hands-free phones), as well as phone access profiles and Internet data access profiles, to name a few. AMI-C officials said, however, that those profiles would come out as interim additions, rather than as one large release.
Whether the new specification will be widely accepted by the automotive community is still unknown. Industry analysts said that many engineers have grown skeptical of AMI-C's efforts over the last four years.
"AMI-C's results have not come as quickly as everyone would have liked," said Hansen of The Hansen Report. "They're still going to be under scrutiny for a while."