Computing 'on the go'

Automakers are teaming with hardware and software manufacturers in a slow but sure march to turn the car into the ultimate mobile computing device.The world's top 12 automakers agreed this month to support the Automobile Multimedia Interface Collaboration.

Automakers are teaming with hardware and software manufacturers in a slow but sure march to turn the car into the ultimate mobile computing device.

The world's top 12 automakers agreed this month to support the Automobile Multimedia Interface Collaboration. The goal of the group is to create a uniform architecture for multimedia devices for all types of cars, limiting custom development work and enabling automakers to embed new electronic features late in a car's development cycle.

"The car industry is kind of Balkanized," said Scott Andrews, a product man ager for the multi media group at Toyota Motor Corp., in Toyota City, Japan, and one of AMIC's original founders. "The goal [with AMIC] is to design an infrastructure so that a guy can design one product and have it work over a variety of car platforms."

AMIC plans to publish its specification late next year, and AMIC-related products are expected about 2003, Andrews said. The group must be careful about what it chooses to support, paying attention to issues such as electromagnetic interference.

"The OEM wants to make sure that whatever comes into the vehicle can be accommodated into the existing electrical system," said Bruce MacDonald, a spokesman for AMIC who worked at General Motors Corp. for 31 years. "You don't want to put anything in that makes the car go backward."

AMIC enlisted the help of IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. to develop the specification, and it's making sure that the companies don't try to sneak proprietary technology into the AMIC spec, Toyota's Andrews said.

Several groups working on communications standards are trying to woo AMIC.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, which has designed a specification for short-range wireless communication among various devices, will introduce at its developers conference next week a committee dedicated to writing profiles for Bluetooth devices embedded in vehicles. The goal is to enable devices sitting on the passenger seat to communicate with the car's embedded systems. AMIC will have several representatives at the Los Angeles conference, but it has yet to commit to Bluetooth support.

A separate group, the IDB Forum, has developed the Intelligent Transportation System Data Bus, a standard for 250K-bps communication within a car's embedded systems.

Such standards will make it easier to develop computer applications for cars. Many applications are already in the works, including text-to-voice e-mail, expected before the end of next year, from General Motors' OnStar division, and Internet access from startup InfoMove. The Kirkland, Wash., company will release a software development kit next year but has yet to gain definite support from auto makers.

Beyond the technology itself, the auto and computer industries must figure out what kinds of applications motorists really want.

"The car is not a good place to surf the Web," Andrews said. "Your car is a good place to listen to messages and talk on the phone, but beyond that it gets dangerous."


Automotive standards in the works

GROUP GOAL
AMIC Create a uniform information systems architecture for all types of cars
Bluetooth SIG Get AMIC to support Bluetooth to ensure wireless communications between a car's embedded systems and portable devices, such as cell phones, that drivers carry with them
IDB Get AMIC to support its spec for 250K-bps communications within vehicles and, eventually, push the spec to 20MB per second and higher