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Network World - Ready to back out of your driveway, you put the car in reverse and press the gas. Nothing happens. You get out and find your neighbor's child on a tricycle behind the car and below your field of view. Your car was smart enough not to go.
Sound far-fetched? Not according to engineers who specialize in automotive electronics.
The development of high-speed, integrated communications systems that link what were stand-alone systems - such as the engine and braking systems - could make so-called virtual bumpers possible in five to 10 years.
Already 30% of the cost of a new car is in the electronics: the chips, wires and networks that support features ranging from automatic door locks to anti-lock brakes to airbag deployment. Today's cars have more computing power than was used in the Apollo moon landing more than 30 years ago.
And carmakers plan to pack in more. To complement existing satellite-delivered navigation, motorist-aid services, and built-in cell phones and entertainment systems, manufacturers will add everything from in-vehicle Internet access to remote maintenance services that can troubleshoot problems and identify misbehaving parts before they fail.
"Vehicles are becoming computing platforms that can access any data at any time," says Jim Colson, a distinguished engineer with IBM working on automotive electronics systems. "A zillion new information services are possible when you add network capability to the vehicle in conjunction with network capability on other devices."
As automotive electronics become more complex, car manufacturers are borrowing a page from the network industry, relying on shared networks and standard protocols to support internal communications between control systems. They're also turning to industry standards such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to support links to external systems that provide traffic, weather, entertainment and other information.
Today's cars have a half-dozen different proprietary networks that carry messages from control systems to the devices being operated. Until recently, each car manufacturer and car model had its own network parts. These are hardened, automotive-specific networks with ultra-reliable electronic components that can withstand vibration and operate in extreme heat and cold.
The latest trend is toward standardization so car manufacturers can save money on components and software development. "Car manufacturers across the globe are moving to standards because if they have a single network it cuts down on the number of connectors and controllers required, and it reduces design and production costs," says Dan Benjamin, an automotive research analyst with ABI.
Companies are converging on several standards for internal networks that address different speed requirements (see graphic). "There's a lot of work across all the car manufacturers to get these to be industry standards," says Dennis Bogden, director of powertrain electronics for General Motors. "If you need a high-speed data link you grab this one, and if you need a low-speed data link you grab another one. We've quit trying to have differences in this underlying technology."
At the same time carmakers are looking to extend the use of those networks to replace the spaghetti of wire used to support functions such as turning on the engine and operating lights.
"As we continue to get better data links and higher-speed data links, we're putting more information on these data links and [relying] less on hard wires," Bogden says. "That takes away from having to have wires, which cost a lot and add a lot of weight."
These networks "reduce our costs and enable us to introduce technology faster," says Martin Yagley, director of audio, telematics and driver information systems at Chrysler. "The benefit to the buyer is improved diagnostics because information on the network gets shared."
But those are just the network advances that are helping carmakers. Most of the other advances are designed to appeal to buyers.
Take built-in wireless communications. More carmakers are going wireless to support a host of new navigation and safety services.
Bluetooth is the technology of choice to support cell phones. The auto industry is developing a special profile of the Bluetooth standard - dubbed Bluetooth Handsfree 2.0 - that will link a built-in microphone in the car to any cell phone without requiring a docking station, allowing for hands-free calling.
"Every car manufacturer will have Bluetooth up and running in high volume - 200,000 units per year - within five to seven years," predicts Paul Hansen, publisher of the Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics in Portsmouth, N.H. Hansen says Bluetooth represents the first general-purpose network standard that the automotive industry has embraced.
Acura and Daimler-Chrysler are already shipping cars with Bluetooth hands-free calling devices that are integrated with navigational systems and radios. Drivers can place calls by simply saying a telephone number.. The systems can also dial numbers brought up by the car's navigation system, say for a restaurant. Calls are controlled via buttons on the dashboard and use a car's speaker system.
Seventeen car manufacturers will offer Bluetooth-based communications options in their 2005 production vehicles, according to the Telematics Research Group. This compares with seven manufacturers that offered the technology in 2004.
Longer term, car manufacturers plan to use Bluetooth to support services such as remote vehicle diagnostics, advanced safety features and vehicle-to-vehicle communications, ABI Research says.
"We're seeing a couple different [automotive information] services use Bluetooth as the data link to the service provider," says Frank Viquez, director of automotive research at ABI. "This cuts down on the hardware and service costs because the driver owns the phone and pays for the call."