SAN JOSE, Calif. Hoping to model themselves after the PC industry, automakers in the next few weeks will take major strides toward creating standards for multimedia auto electronics. If successful, they believe their efforts will lead to simpler implementations of navigation systems, CD players, video screens, digital radios, cell phones and a host of other devices in automobiles. The new standards might also help automakers bring more-sophisticated versions of those products to market faster.
To lay the foundation for those specs, an industry group of 12 automakers from six countries kicked off a series of supplier conferences this past week in Frankfurt, Germany, to detail their plans. Similar conferences are scheduled for next Tuesday (Feb. 29) in Tokyo and March 9 in Detroit.
"The reason we've seen such strides in the PC industry is that everyone is developing their products against the same platform," said Scott Andrews, project general manager for Toyota Motor Corp.'s Electronics Engineering Division, here. "The auto industry is almost the exact opposite."
Indeed, automakers now use a wide variety of bus architectures, ranging from simple Controller Area Network (CAN) buses to copper-based IEEE 1394 and fiber-optic rings, as well as dozens of other, often proprietary, alternatives. As a result, car manufacturers must often reengineer vendor products, which are not designed to any specific standard. In the process, they lose valuable time and fall behind the rate of innovation of the rest of the electronics industry.
That's a big problem, because it means that electronic devices in new cars are using old technology. Many vehicles that will be introduced in the 2001 model year, for example, likely will use technology developed in 1998 or earlier.
One big question mark in the march toward standards, however, is the willingness of major automakers to compromise. "This is a group that will fight over the placement of an extra screw in a vehicle," said George Fry, president of Aviso Micro Technology, a consultant and market watcher in Glendale, Ariz. "But they're going to have to agree on some common bus structure within the year. It's in their best interest to do it."
The industry group, known as the Automotive Multimedia Interface Consortium (AMIC), consists of 12 manufacturers: BMW, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Fiat, General Motors, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, Renault, Toyota and Volkswagen. They plan to encourage development of a Society of Automotive Engineers standard for multimedia devices, such as navigation systems, cell phones, pagers, video systems, CD players, personal digital assistants and automotive PCs. The standard would not apply to proprietary systems such as antilock brakes, power-train controllers, traction systems, antiskid devices, road-sensing suspensions, door locks or power windows.
"We don't want to get into a situation where the navigation system interferes with the operation of the brakes," Andrews said.
The AMIC group hopes by June to publicly endorse a small handful of in-car buses and to develop a specification for a gateway a kind of bridge or translator that would allow devices on the different buses to communicate in a standard way. If automakers can agree on a bus standard by that time, the first "all-AMIC" electronic systems should reach production by the 2005 model year, experts said.
Network buses have grown in importance in recent years because of the proliferation of electronic devices in vehicles. Until recently, automakers discretely wired each electronic feature to a controller. As a result, many vehicles contained hundreds of pounds of bundled wires.
But by connecting various electronic features to a bus, automakers claim they cut wiring splices, reduce the number of wiring terminals and shrink huge wiring bundles to a single strand. Moreover, the use of network buses enables car manufacturers to add features without adding hardware, in some cases.
Still, the sticking point has been disagreement over which network buses to adopt. AMIC members initially plan to endorse the IDB-C (for "intelligent transportation systems data bus-CAN"), a version of which virtually every auto company has used. "Everyone is comfortable with the CAN bus," said Andre Oberschachtsiek, manager of the electronics research laboratory for Volkswagen of America (Sunnyvale, Calif.). "The interface is simple and there's no concern over royalty fees."
Also under consideration are Media Oriented Systems Transport (Most), a higher-cost fiber-optic bus that offers high-speed data transfer, and the IEEE-1394 serial interface. Many automotive engineers expect Most, which runs at 25 Mbits/second now with versions operating at 100 Mbits/s or more under consideration, to eventually see use in multimedia applications, such as video and CD players, as early as model year 2003.
Cost and complexity are issues for Most and IEEE 1394, however. Engineers say that Most would have a more complex interface than IDB-C. And royalties could be an issue for both buses. One source suggested the companies behind Most may seek royalties as high as 30 cents per device. In the PC industry, IEEE 1394 has not attained widespread use in part because of concerns over royalty fees possibly as high as 25 cents per system.
Indeed, Oberschachtsiek of VW said that at this point, AMIC's adoption of Most is "more of a legal issue than a technical issue." In fact, legal and intellectual-property questions are currently some of the biggest hurdles the AMIC group faces, several engineers said.
AMIC members say that the issue of potential royalties is one more reason to back IDB-C, which carries few or no royalties. "AMIC is not about anyone making a connection fee off of the standard," said Dave Acton, an AMIC steering committee member and the chief vehicle engineer for OnStar (Troy, Mich.). "AMIC is about the creation of an open standard that all automakers can use."
Ultimately the group could endorse three or four buses to meet all the needs of in-car entertainment and information systems. "Usually these buses have different speeds, so it makes sense to cascade them in some sort of hierarchy," said Andrews of Toyota.
By midyear, AMIC members hope to get a firm endorsement of IDB-C-and possibly of Most and an optical version of 1394 by automakers and vendors alike. They also hope to establish specifications for a gateway, or "interpreter," that would interface to IDB-C on one side and to the OEM's proprietary buses or other AMIC-approved buses on the other. Finally, they plan to specify a hardware interface and connectors for attachment of the IDB-C bus and any other AMIC-approved buses to the gateway.
That work, while an enormous step for the 12 carmakers that stretch across three continents, is just the first phase of AMIC's goal. A second phase involves defining a common set of application programming interfaces that could provide a single high-level interface for all software written for in-car entertainment and information systems. Such an API could bring huge changes in how the carmakers work with their electronics suppliers. "That's the big thing and it's a couple years out," said Andrews.
The standardization work comes at a time of rapid expansion in automotive electronics. Speaking at the recent International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Naoki Noda, director of Toyota's electronics engineering division, said that with the rise of navigation systems and hybrid electric/gas vehicles, cars will move from using the equivalent of about 20 percent of a 6-inch wafer in semiconductors to an entire 6-inch wafer.
A recent report from market watcher Forward Concepts (Tempe, Ariz.) projected that the value of semiconductors used in cars will rise from from $175 in 1998 to $300 in 2005.
In the midst of this growth, automakers expect to benefit from standardization in buses and APIs in a variety of ways. One is plug-and-play capability. Today, car manufacturers typically spend hundreds of hours reengineering products they buy from vendors. Toyota, for example, uses four different vendor-supplied navigation systems.
"All the suppliers use different microprocessors, interfaces and software," said Andrews, who was one of the founding members of AMIC. Thus every time Toyota makes a change in its navigation system each supplier has to "go in and tear up their code," he said.
With a published set of standards, automakers believe that, like PC industry suppliers, automotive vendors would build their products for use on a standard platform.
Standardized bus structures are also expected to help automakers bring new technology to their cars without a four-year wait. So instead of designing-in a navigation system four years before the vehicle hits the market, automotive engineers can wait until they are deeper into the design cycle and use the most current technology.
"With the new infrastructure, you'll be able to add computing devices without rewiring the car," Andrews said. "So you can drop in an innovation at the eleventh hour."
Standardization might also make vendors more likely to invest in the development of new products, since it would spread their costs over 50 million cars per year, instead of breaking them up into groups of 50,000.
"If I'm an electronics manufacturer, would I rather develop my new product for 100 million PCs or 10,000 Lexuses?" Andrews asked. "Standardization lets the electronics manufacturer tap into a larger production base, so their costs are amortized over a bigger volume."
Another group standing to benefit from AMIC's efforts is the automotive aftermarket. Up until now, aftermarket manufacturers couldn't readily create products that interface with network buses because aftermarket users wouldn't know how to connect them. With a standard bus, however, that could change.
"This will allow a lot of companies to compete in the automotive aftermarket that couldn't do it before," said consultant Fry. "Users will be able to buy an aftermarket navigation system, take it home, plug it into the bus and it will work."
For vendors, the only disadvantage might be that their products will need to be certified, to prove compatibility with standard bus structures. "We don't know yet know how suppliers will feel about that," Acton said.