Automotive Infotainment Drives Vehicle Trends

by Christopher Keuling, Associate Editor

Christopher_150When consumers shop for a new vehicle, they look at price and gas mileage as key factors in their purchasing decision. Technology, now more portable than ever, is also on the mind of the American consumer. Cell phones, GPS navigation devices, mp3 players, and other video applications are becoming both a necessity and a convenience for drivers. Industry experts have said that 2008 is the breakout year for automotive infotainment in the United States. Since the core technology is more affordable, consumers have more spending power. We asked companies creating infotainment devices to help us take a tour of the vehicle of the near future.

Head-Up Displays
The first part of our tour is the windshield. This ordinary looking piece of laminated safety glass may become a key part of the vehicle through the integration of head-up display (HUD). More vehicle manufacturers have integrated HUD to display information including speed, gas gauge, and vital lights to indicate that the vehicle may have a problem.

ec810if101aAccording to Jacques Lincoln, global products manager at Microvision, HUD information is displayed onto the windshield through a light engine, which modulates light onto a moving mirror to turn laser beams on and off. This infrared laser projects via a semiconductor emitting red, blue, and green light through second harmonic generation. This typically takes place on the lower third of the windscreen and the outer left and right edges of the windscreen, with the center left clear for driver visibility.

Center Console
The instrument cluster of a vehicle can differ due to the integration of different devices. Kevin Tanaka, manager of worldwide automotive market and product planning at Xilinx, claims that the infotainment market is fragmented because of this cluster, and because the consumer wants different features. Two standard electronics plug-ins used by virtually all consumers are USB and Bluetooth, and the plug-ins are in high demand. There will be integration for mp3 players, Bluetooth for cell phones, and aftermarket GPS devices among other devices in the vehicle.

Under the Hood
As technology continues to evolve, cars need more storage for applications such as 3-D navigation, voice recognition, and music jukebox capabilities. Like any other place where high-tech devices are used, the memory for the devices must be saved somewhere.
For the car, a hard disk drive is used. Scott Wright, product manager, Toshiba, states that over 50 percent of new car sales in Japan have a hard disk drive inside. The American consumer wants the convenience of an integrated solution with steering controls and soft-dash buttons, with a human interface and a minimal number of buttons. The object of the devices is to provide features and room for redundant database information, and a working copy of the database in case something in the vehicle malfunctions.

Rear Seat
The technology built for the front of a vehicle can be essential to what the consumer wants in the rear of the car. Passengers want the same entertainment experience that they have at home, and monitors are already being installed in the rear seat.
The material that comprises glass monitors breaks easily and could cause injuries in the event of an accident. One remedy is the use of a projector and a pliable screen material, which has become feasible, according to Jacques Lincoln. The material exhibits more durability during crashes, and rolls down when not in use. Another solution is plastic covers over glass monitors that won't break in the event of a crash, and won't require installation of new technology.

ec810if102aThe Vehicle of the Near Future
The commercialization of automotive infotainment will continue since the technology has become affordable to the point where all consumers can integrate it into their cars. Mike Bryars, global manager for infotainment multimedia and telematics, Freescale Semiconductor, states that OEMs have roadmaps to put features in an entire vehicle line, and infotainment has taken a front seat with core components in the automotive market.

Jack Browne, vice president of marketing, and Ian Anderton, director of strategic marketing, MIPS Technologies, stated that navigation systems will be adding 3-D capabilities that give a perspective view. The driver will see landmarks rather than lines that change in size as the vehicle gets closer to an object. Regarding GPS, Scott Wright states that its rise is moving less rapidly due to the success of cell phone navigation.

The HUD may become a key part of the vehicle since the information that can be projected onto the windshield may include more than the speed and gas gauge. Jacques Lincoln claims that it will work with the technology that consumers want to put into their cars, including caller ID from Bluetooth, artist name and track name from an mp3 player, radio station names, and GPS maps. A 2006 NHTSA study indicates that almost 40 percent of drivers “appeared to be distracted within five seconds before the crash-imminent alert,”¹ and a study at University of California at Berkeley says it takes a driver a minimum of two seconds to look at in-vehicle information without a HUD².

The HUD will also communicate active and passive safety information, including blind spot detection, lane departure warning, and cruise control status. At the moment, there is no regulation on HUD, except for the information visible to the driver during the day and at night, with standardized symbology and color coding, according to FMVSS 571.101 of the NHTSA. Most manufacturers prevent the HUD from obscuring drivers' vision by limiting the display information to certain sections of the windscreen.

Industry experts recommend that infotainment technology be integrated into all make and models of automobiles. Kevin Tanaka says that the infotainment industry will become more fragmented because of the manufacturer’s desire to be unique and to differentiate its vehicles in the eyes of the consumer. Integration issues already exist due to different types of connections in the same vehicle (i.e. USB vs. Bluetooth). They won’t go away over time unless a standard comes out for manufacturers that still allows them to distinguish their own products.

¹ “Evaluation of an Automotive Rear-End Collision Avoidance System,” WG Najm et al., U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2006): DOT HS 810 569.

² "Teens and Driving in California: Summary of Research and Best Practices,” H Bui et al., U.C. Berkeley Traffic Safety Center Paper: UCB-TSC-RR-2006-1.