Intel drives in-car computer effort

Your car is about to get chippedIntel has discovered a method of fitting at least five software companies under the dashboard or in the backseat of a car.
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

The chipmaker announced Wednesday that it has forged relationships with Microsoft, QNX Software Systems, Wind River Systems, IBM, Fonix and Lernout & Hauspie to commercialise in-car computers. Otherwise known as telematic systems, these in-car computers promise to perform any number of tasks from facilitating hands-free cell phone calls and finding urgently needed directions to providing backseat entertainment systems and in-car commerce.

In-car computers based on Intel's chips could begin shipping as soon as the second half of 2002, the company said. The systems will use Intel's StrongARM -- and later its Xscale -- processors, as well as speech-based user interfaces, Pat Kerrigan, director of Intel's in-car computing unit, said Wednesday. The unit is part of Intel's Wireless Communications and Computing Group. "We're working with the big guys in consumer electronics, as well as trying to understand the needs of the automobile manufactures," Kerrigan said.

The company is also serving its own needs. As it moves into telematics, Intel sees the possibility of boosting chip sales. "From our (processor) building-block perspective, it's all the same stuff" as in a cell phone or handheld, "just with a different bezel," Kerrigan said. Thilo Koslowski, an automotive analyst at Gartner, said telematics "will be the fastest-growing market (for processors) over the next couple of years." The mobile computing market in general will continue to grow steadily, Koslowski said, but "really vehicles represent the only platform with huge growth potential."

For now, however, Intel is playing catch-up with others such as OnStar, General Motors' dashboard technology division. OnStar already provides services such as directions and the ability to notify police in case of an emergency. The service uses GPS (Global Positioning System) and cellular networks. Intel is working with consumer electronics companies such as Sony and Clarion, as well as with automakers to develop a range of in-car computers--from very basic ones for communication and navigation to full-on Internet-based entertainment and commerce systems.

Basic systems would add only $100 to $200 to the cost of a new car. SUVs and minivans would likely offer more elaborate and costly systems with the aim of entertaining children on long trips.

Still, Koslowski said, the future is cloudy. "Right now the problem is everyone is pushing new technology without knowing whether consumers are willing to pay for it. It doesn't seem to be that consumers are dying for these applications--at least not yet." There is also a safety issue to consider. The debate on in-car computers causing driver distraction continues, he said, but "I don't think it's as bad as a lot of people think." Of course, Kerrigan added, "you always want to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. So what you need are voice engines."

Intel enlisted Microsoft for its Windows CE operating system; QNX for its QNX operating system and development tools; and Wind River Systems for VxWorks OS, tools and Java technology. The trio will, in turn, support Intel's Integrated Performance Primitives, a software library for speech, image and signal processing, as well as multimedia such as MP3 and MPEG files.

Intel turned to IBM to provide, among other things, the middleware that will allow in-car computers to work with large communication networks. IBM, Fonix and Lernout & Hauspie will offer speech-recognition software that can allow drivers to use voice commands to operate their in-car computers. Lernout & Hauspie, for example, is tweaking its noise-resistant speech recognition ASR 200 and ASR 1600 software and its text-to-speech TTS3000 application to run on StrongARM and XScale chips.

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