DEARBORN, Mich. Six leading carmakers have banded together to create a standard that defines a common way for information, communications and entertainment systems to interact with the electronics in a car.
The Automotive Multimedia Interface Consortium (AMIC) hopes to complete its work in the next few months and to see its standards deployed in about three years.
AMIC's initial members Chrysler, Daimler-Benz, Ford, General Motors, Renault and Toyota said other carmakers plan to join the group, but weren't able to commit by the annnouncement Monday (Oct. 19), which was made at Convergence, the bi-annual conference of the automotive electronics industry.
The group plans to support the ITS Data Bus, an emerging hardware specification, and its members plan to write software that will let consumer products work together in the automotive environment. Their goal is to create a common way for various electronic products to be plugged into different cars while retaining their ability to work together. In this way, a navigation system, PDA, pager and other products could share a single screen in a vehicle, with data from one item driving a response from another.
"This was driven by a couple things," said Scott Andrews, project general manager at Toyota's R&D Management Division (Aichi, Japan). "One is the ability to download software that lets a PDA work in any car. A guy with a PDA, for example, might want it to talk to the car, maybe telling the navigation system that he wants to go to an address from his address book. If we don't have a standard, there are so many PDA-auto platform combinations that it's doubtful anyone would support them. And when you add in other products, it quickly becomes totally unmanageable."
Analysts called the formation of the consortium a major step that could hasten the adoption of PCs and other computing platforms within a vehicle. For the past several months, industry has raced to find a way to place PCs in vehicles. But there has been no sign of support from industry executives until now. Deployment of PCs in vehicles has been held up by fear that car makers would use proprietary links. AMIC's formation should reduce this roadblock.
"This is really quite a momentous agreement these six carmakers are making, since they represent 47 percent of the world's car and truck production," said Paul Hansen, a consultant based in Rye, N.H. "This standard has political will from the top. This isn't something that some electronic engineers thought up. Support comes from the executive suites."
Automakers, who have a reputation for favoring internally developed technology and for shunning broad standards, apparently see a benefit to the proposed link. Though some observers said the standard could make it easy for consumers to bypass internal systems and buy aftermarket hardware, car makers feel the advantages outweigh the risks.
"This has benefits to consumers," said Dave Acton, director of electronic engineering at General Motors Corp. (Detroit). "Any time we as an industry agree on technology like this that is not visible to consumers, it allows us to focus on the things consumers want."
The technical foundation for a common hardware interface has been under way for some time under the auspices of the Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE). Its ITS Data Bus standard will provide three communication speeds when it's completed next year. Currently, a 115-kbits/second version has been approved by the SAE. Others versions will support higher data rates.
The hardware interface, which is based on the IEEE 488 specification, will provide a single connection scheme using connectors currently available from Molex Inc. and AMP Inc.
The physical link will be augmented by software that is now under development. It will probably use a Java API that will allow products to communicate and share information.
While the consortium holds promise, some observers wondered what will come of the agreement to set a standard. Some earlier efforts to establish electronics standards for the automotive industry have collapsed over time. Others, such as the J1850 multiplexing standard, had enough ambiguity to result in several incompatible versions which are now on the market.
"I'd say the odds are better than 50-50 that this will happen," Hansen said. "That's saying quite a bit, given the history of standards made with automotive companies. Getting to this point, as hard as it was, may end up being the easy part when it comes to actually coming up with the specification. The devil will be in the details."
Proponents said the AMIC effort has a better chance of success than other electronics standards because it provides a way for auto makers to connect state-of-the-art electronic products to their cars. Auto makers currently work on three- to four-year design cycles, and find it difficult to design in consumer electronics systems that evolve on far shorter life cycles. In other words, car makers have something to gain from the AMIC standard.
"One reason J1850 resulted in so many dialects is that, from an OEM perspective, there is no overriding need to have one database that is compatible with those from other suppliers," Toyota's Andrews said. "There's no real benefit if their product works in another car maker's vehicles. [But] here, there is a need to take the boxes from one car to another. If you have a PDA, you will probably take it from one car to another."