The broadband multimedia experience is coming to a car dealership near youperhaps sooner than you think.
Automotive infotainment is more than just radio with video ambitions. In the next three to five years, it could easily include navigation, safety, and Internet access as well.
For example, GPS navigation has real-time applications, such as traffic updates and rerouting. Automotive safety can be enhanced with cameras that give the driver an unimpeded 360° view around the vehicle. With wireless Internet access on the near-term horizon for many cities, surfing the Web will be a moving experience in more ways than one.
For the driver and passengers, the dream of broadband out-of-the-home-and-into-the-car infotainment will become a reality simply by turning the ignition key. But automotive electronics design engineers will first have to find some way to sort out and deliver the multimedia bits and bytes from a half dozen sourcesan unprecedented challenge.
The task at hand
Although next-generation in-car networks will be capable of handling the data rates generated by infotainment systems, the engineering challenge does not end with supplying a wider pipe.
The most sophisticated engineering will involve identifying the data streams (audio, video, 3-D graphics, etc), directing them to the right device in the correct format, and perhaps most important from an OEM's economic perspective, designing a system that works anywhere in the world.
Automobiles are prototypical of the global marketplace. Analysts who have tracked the globalization of consumer electronics are well aware that viewing habits, delivery technologies, and multimedia formats differ drastically in the world's primary markets. But with only a few exceptions, the economies of scale and the value of providing after-sale support for a single product instead of a half dozen are the driving force behind an "it works anywhere" design approach.
DVD paces development
When it comes to video, for example, the U.S. is clearly on a technology adoption track that begins with DVD players for rear-seat passengers. The next big thing in in-car entertainment in the U.S. is likely to be satellite delivery of real-time audio and videoin large part due to the growth and investment in digital satellite radio systems such as Sirius and XM.
DVD has already hit the U.S. auto market in a big way. For instance:
Nearly a third of drivers (32%) surveyed earlier this year for the Consumer Electronics Association use a DVD player in their cars, minivans, or SUVs. The legendary soccer moms (and dads) reported even higher use, 46%.
A relatively small percentage of these DVDs were built into the vehicle at the factory, but even that is changing fast. More than half the Odyssey minivans sold include a DVD system, according to Honda.
There is also mounting anecdotal evidence to give color to the statistics. Hummer owners tend to define the extremes of many automotive trends. In-car TV is no exception. The Atlanta Constitution recently reported that a Hummer owner had seven TV screens installed, presumably so the entire soccer team has a good shot at viewing his or her favorite show on the way to the match.
Global market differences
Intense DVD usage is not, however, the case in other regions. In Japan, where traffic jams are an unavoidable fact of daily life, front-seat TV is not just envisioned but already deployed for the driver's viewing pleasure.
Europe is also likely to go the terrestrial broadcast route when it comes to beaming digital TV to vehicles. So the best that automotive infotainment engineers can hope for is a system that resolves the format problems by loading the geographically appropriate software on the car's multimedia system at the point of sale, or shipping.
In all likelihood, the car infotainment technology will follow the same implementation path as consumer electronics has over the past decadeand encounter the same problems: A slew of existing standards, with new standards and new use-cases arriving on the desks of infotainment systems engineers with disheartening regularity.
Take the iPod, for instance. Whereas other digital audio has gone the way of MP3 for the most part, Apple chose ACC (advanced audio coding) for its coding algorithm. More audio algorithms are sure to come along in the future. Video presents similar challenges. It's not simply a matter of an engineer choosing H.263, H.264, MPEG2, and/or WM9 and hardwiring them all into an ASIC. While this can be done, what happens when a new audio or video codec comes along?
And let's not forget those other functions intended to titillate the buying habits of consumers around the world. Navigation, safety and IP access information will be racing along through the data stream along with audio and videoadding another level of complexity.