Smartphones power shift to smarter cars

The integration of smartphone chips into car design could change the driving experience forever, says Gary Atkinson
Written by Gary Atkinson, Contributor

New apps for in-car entertainment will use the same chips found in smartphones. That integration of technology may well change driving forever, says Gary Atkinson.

In 2007, 160 million cars were on the road in China alone. That number will have grown to over two billion by 2014, according to predictions.

The huge growth in China may not be replicated as aggressively elsewhere across the world, but with growth in mind, many automotive manufacturers will be attempting to drive vehicle demand through the development of new applications for in-vehicle-infotainment (IVI).

These applications will run using semiconductors that are most commonly seen today powering connectivity and performance in home-based, handheld or portable consumer devices. This technology integration could change the driving experience forever.

Lower power microcontrollers
Alongside the increasing use of high-performance chips, lower power microcontrollers (MCUs) have been widely used to help drive or run a variety of automotive functions. MCUs do the invisible jobs powering, for example, seat-belt systems, air bags and non-navigation applications.

MCUs have a vital role in automotive design and will continue to do so. Toshiba has announced plans to use new microcontroller technologies to help with its automotive safety systems, with the aim of producing new high-quality displays.

As well as the safety functions powered by MCUs, there are also innovative ways in which the latest technology can be used to offer an enhanced driving experience.

Consumers now demand constant connectivity from their personal devices, allowing them the ability to download applications for a more personalised user experience. The challenge is now for automotive manufacturers to transfer these desired features into today's and tomorrow's vehicles.

The two already work together with such features as hands-free for making calls safely while on the move. We are now ready for the next step — the really smart car.

Voice and in-dash car controls
We have already seen smart cars aimed at mass-market audiences. Last year Ford revealed its upgrade to the Ford Sync AppLink software. Due to appear in the Ford Fiesta in the summer of 2011 in the US, it will allow BlackBerry and Android users to access and control their applications using voice and in-dash car controls.

Ford is also launching a developer network so Sync applications can be built into new or existing applications. This is a move that is likely to excite developers as they will be able to take advantage of a standardised platform to more easily develop in-car applications.

The automotive industry is heavily focused on pursuing standards with bodies such as the Genivi alliance — which includes large automotive manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover, BMW and Renault — helping to drive the adoption of open-source software in IVI.

Genivi hopes that through the development of shared platforms and software, life will...

... be made easier for IVI developers, reducing time to market. Standardisation is a vital ingredient that will allow the automotive industry to apply some smartphone-like features to car controls.

Automotive industry initiatives
Genivi is just one initiative currently taking place in the automotive industry. ARM and its partners recently revealed the ARM-powered Corvette, a concept car from QNX Software Systems.

The software allows automakers to create a personal infotainment system for the driver. It's another example of an available technology platform, and it's another vision of a potential future industry standard.

So, could we see an auto app store in the future? We've already seen TomTom apps for the iPhone that turn a user's phone into a personal sat-nav. As with the Ford Sync, applications could be shared from smartphone to car with the touch of a button.

Freescale has already expanded one processor family, which is designed for use in automotive multimedia applications, showing the relative ease with which current processor designs can be adapted for automotive use.

Automotive applications could soon be the next battleground in personal multimedia.
– Gary Atkinson, ARM

Opportunities for chip designers
The automotive industry has always been an important market for chip designers and manufacturers, but as the big automotive companies look to align their IVI with the connected world, a new set of opportunities present themselves.

Processors used in personal devices can offer the performance needed for high-quality display, connectivity and function in the car. Looking at the success of the smartphone app stores, automotive applications could soon be the next battleground in personal multimedia.

Gary Atkinson is embedded segment director at microprocessor design company ARM.

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