When the wireless technology has penetrated far and wide the home market in developed countries, it's only logical that cars have become the next frontier for wireless technology suppliers.
Given that the automotive product development cycle and the life cycle of cars themselves are much longer than those of mobile handsets, the wireless technologies are gradually moving into cars.
Why go wireless?
What, then, is driving the conservative carmakers to embrace the wireless (Bluetooth, WiFi included) inside the car?
It's the mobile devices people are bringing into their own cars, of course.
Sure, USB, Aux, and proprietary connectivity solutions are already inside cars so that people can plug their handheld devices into their cars. But once consumers start looking to send data -- downloaded from the Internet onto their handsets or tablets -- to backseat displays or any other devices inside the car, carmakers are now resorting to Bluetooth (already inside a car) or WiFi for executing such content transfer tasks, said Luca DeAmbroggi, senior analyst for automotive infotainment at IHS.
Just to be clear, DeAmbroggi isn't suggesting that wireless technologies are replacing existing in-car wired solutions, such as USBs for infotainment; CAN, FlexRay, or Ethernet for in-car networks; or embedded links used by in-car cameras designed for safety, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), and others.
But the overall use of wireless inside a car is picking up, DeAmbroggi said.
(Source: IHS, July 2013)
In the automotive market, for example, the USB legacy wired connectivity solution is "being challenged by wireless mechanisms in cars such as Bluetooth for exchanging data between fixed and mobile devices over short distances, as well as embedded cellular for two-way wireless telematics connectivity," the analyst explained.
Bluetooth in cars, we understand. The question is, which versions of those wireless technologies are being embraced by automotive companies, as the rest of the world is quickly moving onto the next-generations of faster WiFi and lower-power Bluetooth?
DeAmbroggi noted that automakers are now looking at Bluetooth 4.0 (based on Bluetooth Low Energy) and 802.11ab, for example. The Bluetooth 4.0 will offer higher transfer speeds with the high-speed (HS) option, while ensuring that gadgets stay paired longer and take up less power, he explained.
But of course, neither Bluetooth 4.0 nor 802.11ab is capable of transferring big data -- such as video captured by in-car camera, which needs to be high-resolution with no compression allowed. Further, when consumers want to stream HD video from their smartphone to backseat display, neither wireless technology will cut it.
WiGig in cars
Panasonic, for one, announced last year an after-market wireless product based on the new WiGig technology, supporting data transmission rates up to 7 Giga bit per second by using 60GHz frequency band. In the demonstration, the Japanese company showed a passenger transferring media from the tablet to a display mounted in the passenger seat. An exchange of content also takes place from the car's computer over to the tablet; the passenger checks out auto information such as readings on tire pressure and battery capacity.
While Panasonic's video demo has gotten a lot of attention, DeAmbroggi doesn't believe it has reached the commercial market yet.
Regardless of different wireless technologies currently under consideration for in-car usages, one thing is for sure: Consumers will always crave for bigger and faster wireless solutions, as long as their own mobile devices are bridged to the Internet and they download more content. Nothing can stop consumers' insatiable appetite.
At minimum (without even going to WiGig), though, one way to address the wireless conundrum in cars is to make sure that there will be WiFi in a car so that any overflow of data can be transferred by switching the technology from Bluetooth to WiFi, the IHS analyst said.
However, DeAmbroggi said that he isn't sure if automotive OEMs will prefer a decoupled solution for Bluetooth and WiFi in cars, or if they will opt instead for a combo approach that optimizes cost and reduces the design workload.
Almost all of the smartphones these days use WiFi/Bluetooth combo chips. Why wouldn't carmakers use them?
DeAmbroggi reminded, "First, those combo chips used in mobile devices are not automotive qualified parts."
Second, he said, "My concern is the cost issue. Even though the broader diffusion of wireless technologies points to integrated combo solutions being used in the future, a separate chip approach is more likely -- at least in the short term."
That's due to the still limited pull of WiFi in automotive, he explained. "The integration of WiFi is still limited to premium cars." Automotive OEMs are weighing the cost, use-case scenarios (for tablets and mobile phones inside a car) and bandwidth requirements, he added.
Regardless of the wireless technology to be used in cars, DeAmbroggi cautioned that there are a number of issues and concerns that "must be taken into
consideration prior to implementation."
They include "signal reception, electromagnetic interference, increasing system complexity because of varying wireless frequency spectrums, and regional differences and specifications," he explained. Such variables, in turn, will affect the cost of the wireless system and components to be included.
The another subtle but big problem is supply issue. WiFi/Bluetooth combo chip is mainly desgined for cellphones and tablets, usually have product lifecycle 3-5 years. In order to be competitive (smaller footprint, lower power consumption, higher throughtput / latest standard), no chip manufacture want to stick with old generation process.
Of course car industry is very different. They want to secure parts supply at least for 10 years. For chip suppliers, that means they have to keep old generation process fab running for long time, or must have large dead stock - either way raising the cost, reducing their profit.
Unless they made sure about huge growth oppotunity in WiFi - for car market, or they suffers market satulation in consumer electoronics WiFi (PC, Phone, Tablet, etc), it is high risk (and perhaps not very profitable) challenge for chip suppliers to jump in to car industry, I think.
I want to point one thing; Bluetooth +HS mode (which is introduced at BT3.0) is actually WiFi. It is officially called PAL/AMP (Protocol Adaptation Layer / Alternative MAC and PHY), which is essentially "hijacking" WiFi chip by Bluetooth driver stack. So adapting BT+HS technology is essentially "switching Bluetooth to WiFi" as the result.
Bluetooth itself has its own "high speed" mode called EDR (Enhanced Data Rate), which was introduced at BT2.0, but EDR is only 3Mbps max.
It's kind of shocking to think that carmakers would not embrace Wi-Fi Bluetooth combo chips. As you say, Junko, nearly all smartphones use these chips. Why would automakers not fully embrace the joys of wireless connectivity?