PARK RIDGE, Ill. Motorola Inc. will take Bluetooth a step closer to the automobile this week, as it demonstrates a new in-car communication system at the Convergence 2000 show in Detroit.
The demonstration, which involves moving data back and forth from consumer devices to automotive network buses, is believed to be the first of its kind in the automotive industry. It's also one that has been anxiously awaited by automotive engineers, many of whom foresee a vast array of potential applications for Bluetooth's wireless techniques.
"Automakers have been thinking about this since they formed the Automotive Multimedia Interface Cooperation three years ago," said Paul Hansen, publisher of The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics.
Indeed, many observers believe the Bluetooth standard, which calls for short-range wireless links among portable consumer devices, has the potential to transform dashboard electronics. The technology, they say, could change the way drivers interact with cell phones, radios and pagers. It could also enable devices such as PDAs and notebook computers to easily share data with in-car PCs.
And it could allow cars to talk to service equipment without the need to open the hood. "The fact that you've got so many phones with Bluetooth on them makes it obvious that the automotive community needs to follow this," Hansen said.
In the demonstration, Motorola's system will send data back and forth from an automotive instrument cluster to a laptop computer. To do that, it will take data off the instrument cluster's controller-area network (CAN) bus and split it in parallel, with part being used to drive the instrument cluster as the other portion is formatted for Bluetooth.
By converting the CAN message to an RS-232 serial communications format, it can be sent via a Bluetooth radio to a similar gateway at the laptop computer. As a result, the laptop can interpret data directly off the instrument cluster.
The demonstration shows that data residing on the CAN bus can now be easily accessed outside the vehicle. As a result, the system offers potential not only for consumers, but also for service centers that want to draw information from a vehicle without attaching wires.
"Mission-critical data for diagnostics and safety can be sniffed out and unobtrusively accessed by a much more pragmatic means," said Valerie Vinall, a wireless-systems design engineer for Motorola (Austin, Texas).
One of the keys to the demonstration is the Bluetooth radio, built by Digianswer A/S (Denmark), a majority-owned Motorola subsidiary. The radio is basically a transceiver card with an RF front end, a baseband chip from Analog Devices Inc. and 128 kbytes of flash memory. A 16-bit processor serves as the Bluetooth gateway, buffering the data, framing it so that messages can be interpreted, and then synchronizing communication for the system's transport layers.
Digianswer is developing the credit-card-size Bluetooth radio transceiver for use in vehicles and on consumer devices. A special version the size of a silver dollar will fit atop headsets or on cell phones. Motorola said it will demonstrate a cell phone, known as the Timeport phone, that employs a clip-on Bluetooth module at Convergence 2000.
The company said the credit-card-size Bluetooth modules can be built for about $25 apiece, but it hopes to lower that figure to $5 by 2003 or 2004. "In order to win over consumers, you have to hit that $5 target," Vinall said. "We still have to lower the cost and get the size down."
Vinall said that automotive engineers who have seen the technology in private demonstrations are thrilled by its potential. "They're excited because there's so much difficulty in hooking up test equipment at the service center," she said. "All the scopes, meters, cables and wires are being replaced by a single Bluetooth access point."
The significance of the system is that it leverages technology developed for the consumer market. According to figures from Cahners' In-Stat Group, more than 670 million Bluetooth-enabled devices, ranging from PDAs to in-car computers, will be in use by 2005. As a result, engineers say, Bluetooth costs will continue to drop.
"Automakers could have worked out their own radio transport and developed their own proprietary gateway," Vinall said. "But because it is ubiquitous, Bluetooth will reduce costs enough so that everyone can afford to do it."
Industry experts foresee using Bluetooth for hands-off control of cell phones and for retrieving e-mail and accessing the Internet in vehicles. Ultimately, some believe it could have more potential than proprietary systems that are now being introduced to the market.
"The ones that are coming out now aren't universal," said Hansen of The Hansen Report. "In a couple of years, you might want to change out your cell phone or your handset, and then you'll have a problem. But with Bluetooth, the cell phones and docking stations will be quite universal."
Some believe that the ubiquity of Bluetooth may even reach into the backseat. As rear-seat video systems incorporate more video game technology, Bluetooth will play a role, Hansen said. "Kids will be walking around with little Bluetooth-compatible video controllers," he said. "And it's inevitable that they'll want to bring them into the car."
For the technology to really take off, however, engineers say they must first lower costs, decrease size and improve the transmission speeds of Bluetooth transceivers. Predicted speeds of about 1 Mbit/second may not be enough for future applications, they say.
"There's still a lot of work that needs to be done to make Bluetooth fit," Hansen said. "But the potential is there."