MUNICH, Germany Economic pressure and customers' requirements will urge car manufacturers to look at the PC market when meeting design decisions for future head units, predicts market researcher iSuppli. Thus, the differentiating features move into the software with some interesting consequences.
The automotive head unit will change its appearance, function and internal structure massively under the impact of the current automotive crisis, says Richard Robinson, principal analyst for automotive electronics at iSuppli. While head units used to offer limited functionality such as interfacing to a relatively simple infotainment system, this will change: Customers increasingly demand sophisticated telematics, navigation, Bluetooth support for integrating portable devices and backup camera displays. Thus, head units have to integrate a rising number of diverse functions much like the Personal Computer did over its history.
In its early years, the PC offered limited functionality on its motherboard; differentiation mostly happened by means of add-on boards, Robinson explains. Today, PCs are rather indistinguishable and the differentiation has shifted to the software level. "This is something head unit designers should learn from," Robinson suggests.
OEMs could benefit by offering such platforms: While they offer different functionality, they share the same hardware which leads to high volumes and, in turn, to low prices.
If things follow Robinson's logic, the head unit over time will turn into a powerful generic platform; OEMs could offer a great variety of different and differentiating functions. The changeover to such models has already begun with Ford's Sync and Fiat's Blue & Me platforms.
In the future, the default baseline for audio will include support for analog and digital radio, multi-channel speaker support, voice control for accessing portable music players such as MP3 players or iPods, graphic displays and low-cost navigation functions. Mobile TV and back-up cameras are seen as strong optional requirements.
Since the head unit will mutate into a universal platform, integrating a broad range of functions from navigation to communications, it will be necessary for OEMs to offer the functionality necessary to update the software as an aftermarket service.
The software-oriented head unit model would also have a downside: Users will become responsible for software and firmware updates. "It is essential that the burden of mass firmware updates such as Bluetooth profile updates or new application installs be passed on to the consumer," Robinson says.
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