New bus drives cars

New standard could bring in-car computing closer to reality

The future of high-tech transport took shape on Tuesday with the release of the first industry-wide specification for intelligent devices in cars. Leading industry group AMI-C unveiled Release One of its system for linking together mobile phones, hifi, navigation, entertainment and other in-car devices over networks.

"The consumer will see a tremendous decrease in cost for the sort of technologies they'd like to have in their cars but can't currently afford" said Dan Ingersol, vice-president of AMI-C. "With PCs, you have a market of 150 million units. Cars have proprietary interfaces, so you've got a maximum market of one to two million."

The new standard would bring many new manufacturers into the market, he predicted, with PC suppliers starting to compete with existing automotive companies. Equipment like in-car DVD players would become a lot cheaper, while centralised control of all in-car electronics would become possible for the first time.

However, the standard is still in the very early stages of development. It currently specifies two different and incompatible networks, IEEE-1394 and MOST. IEEE-1394 is seen as more appropriate for consumer electronics and add-ons, while MOST -- a product of a separate consortium -- is perceived as for embedded systems that come with the car.

Neither network has yet been certified by AMIC: "Two criteria are that a network must be open and free, and a third is that it must meet automotive standards. MOST isn't there on the first two, 1394 isn't there on the third," said Ingersol.

There's also a whiff of politics involved: while the initial incarnation of AMIC had the vast majority of the world's car makers it recently reformed but without German manufacturers Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler-Chrysler. They're still in the MOST group, but have complained about slow progress in AMIC and have yet to sign up again.

Other issues are also under development, with AMI-C and Bluetooth working together in a Automotive Expert Group to define how equipment will work together in a vehicle environment. Safety and security are also being scrutinised: while the system won't carry safety critical information as envisaged, it is planned that it will coordinate multiple devices within the car to avoid distracting the driver as far as possible.

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