COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. Cadillac raised the stakes in the frenzied automotive electronics game this past week, announcing that it would offer an optional PC in the 2001 versions of its Seville and DeVille models.
The unveiling of the new Cadillac system, which will be introduced to the public in September, marks the first time that an automaker has put a PC in a production car. The company's announcement follows 19 months of furious development, in which as many as 60 engineers worked on the project at one time.
Cadillac's announcement also serves as a signal to competitors that automotive electronics are moving to a new arena that includes information and services. In the past decade, automakers have applied electronics to power trains, safety systems and entertainment. But Cadillac's system calls for a shift in traditional thinking, because it links car manufacturers with providers of wireless technology and Internet services.
"There's definitely been a change in vision among automakers," said Joe Sawyer, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. (Cambridge, Mass). "They now see cars as platforms for services, and the Internet is a great way to deliver on that vision."
Indeed, the new system offers consumers an array of intertwined services, including e-mail, navigation assistance and cellular phone capabilities. At the same time, it provides them with new twists on old technology. The radio, for example, can now be voice actuated. And an electronic in-dash voice General Motors engineers call it "Veronica" can assist drivers with tasks as simple as making a phone call. Callers who forget the correct voice commands simply ask, "What can I do?" and Veronica offers advice.
Industry observers see this "infotainment" system, as Cadillac calls it, as a calculated risk. "They're taking a chance, but it seems like they've got the right idea," said David Cooperstein, director of online retail for Forrester Research. "It's a clear commitment by GM to get in front of the technology curve, which has not always been their typical way of operating."
Several other automakers most notably Ford have talked about putting a PC in a car. And one company, Clarion, has introduced an automotive PC for the aftermarket. But Ford has yet to realize its goal of putting a PC in a production vehicle by 2000, and Clarion's aftermarket sales have been disappointing.
Despite those failures, GM staffers say that the company's management all the way up to chairman and chief executive officer Rick Wagoner was determined to put a PC in a 2001 model-year vehicle. "Without the blessing of top management, it would have been like pushing a penny uphill with your nose," said Karenann Terrell, director of e-vehicle product management for GM. "We would have gotten there eventually, but it would have taken forever."
To get there by 2001, GM had to make changes not only to the design of automotive PCs, but to the very process by which it creates its products. Starting in September 1998, company engineers had only about 19 months to put the system into production, compared with the three or four years they would normally take. That meant that the giant automaker couldn't simply design the system from the ground, up, as it ordinarily would. Instead, GM engineers had to work closely with suppliers to make it happen.
"Our bread and butter had always been black boxes for systems like ABS antilock braking and suspension," said Tim Bolduc, senior project engineer for Delphi Automotive Systems (Kokomo, Ind.), which was a division of GM when the project was launched. "But this was a case where we knew we had to ask, 'What can we learn from the people in this industry?' "
To make the deadline, Delphi worked closely with Microsoft Corp. to incorporate its Windows CE operating system. It also teamed with makers of application software, hardware drivers and interface software so its engineers wouldn't spend time learning what others already knew.
Delphi staffers also sped the process by using so-called "forward engineering," a process in which they incorporate technical building blocks from previous projects. When management decided to install CompactFlash memory in the unit, for example, Delphi engineers incorporated drivers that they'd previously used in a similar system.
While GM worked externally with vendors, it also concentrated internally on building a system that would overcome the shortcomings of earlier automotive PCs. From the beginning, GM designers decided that they would employ an "eyes on the road, hands on the wheel" philosophy, which meant that drivers would access the system through voice commands.
The company's e-vehicle product management team also wanted to develop an intuitive user interface. "We had to rethink how we made user interfaces and simplify everything," Terrell said. "It wasn't so much an exercise in engineering as it was in behavioral sciences."
On the hardware side, engineers dealt with the sticky problem of connecting the infotainment system to other automotive controllers without compromising the ABS, engine controls or other safety-critical system. To do that, they employed two basic processor boards: One runs the automotive PC, user interface and software applications, while the other acts as a gateway to the rest of the car's electronics.
The gateway enabled the infotainment system to go a step beyond aftermarket devices and access data from separate systems to aid in the car's overall intelligence. Drivers, for example, can use the car's microphone to give voice commands to the computer, or they can use it to talk over the cell phone. Similarly, they can use the steering wheel to control the radio, despite the fact that the radio and steering wheel reside on separate network buses.
"Because the unit is integrated with the gateway board, it can share data," Bolduc said. "Theoretically, it could get information from the ABS, then send that data through the cell phone link to have the dealership diagnose a problem in the brakes." Aftermarket devices can never do that, Bolduc said, because users don't have access to the network buses.
In the near future, GM engineers plan to improve the system. An infrared port that's now used to download data from a personal digital assistant, for example, will be replaced by Bluetooth communications within a year. That way, users of palmtop computers or PDAs would merely have to hold their devices within a few feet of the infotainment system in order to share data. In the process, Bluetooth would also enable users to boost the data transfer rate from 10 kbytes/second to 700 kbytes/s.
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Cadillac expects the new system to be well-received by its younger customers, particularly those who drive the sporty Seville STS. "Over three-quarters of STS drivers access e-mail on a daily basis," Terrell said. "And e-mail is the key application where our consumers will find value in this."
Cadillac executives also expect consumers to be enticed by the initial price, which is expected to be around $2,000. Currently, navigation systems with no e-mail capabilities are offered for approximately the same price.
Whether such technology could find a home in lower-cost vehicles is a separate question. GM executives said that only 24 percent of the U.S. general population is connected to the Internet, which wouldn't bode well for success in the general run of cars. But they expect that figure to jump to 50 percent within two years.
"It's true that people are getting addicted to their information sources," said Cooperstein of Forrester Research. "And they might find that the hour of productivity that they now lose in the car commuting can be regained."
Despite the emphasis on e-mail, Cadillac has been careful not to refer to its system as a PC. By calling it an infotainment system instead, observers say that Cadillac is divorcing itself from previous efforts. "Clarion took a very PC-centric approach with their system, and it didn't stir up a lot of interest," Cooperstein said. "Cadillac is emphasizing information, rather than trying to get a big hit by calling it a PC."
Analysts won't offer predictions on the success of the system, but they say that Cadillac's efforts are consistent with those of its parent, GM, as well as with Ford's. In January, GM partnered with America Online and Ford teamed with Yahoo to put automotive ownership and maintenance services on the Internet. And this week, the OnStar division of GM announced that it will deliver e-mail and other Web-based information to vehicles through the OnStar Virtual Advisor, a voice-activated service.
"We're expecting the Virtual Advisor to be in 1 million vehicles by the end of 2000," GM's Terrell said.
But even GM executives aren't sure how to gauge the ultimate public response. "Initially, we're looking for a 10 to 15 percent penetration on Sevilles and DeVilles, but it could go as high as 50 percent," Terrell concluded. "It's virtually impossible to predict the penetration of a system like this."