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Home » Applications & Technologies » Automotive Infotainment Takes a Front Seat
Applications & Technologies

Automotive Infotainment Takes a Front Seat

By Naima Rivas, Mouser Electronics

Infotainment's Fascination

Infotainment in the traditional sense is media that conveys informative and entertaining content to consumers. Consumer electronics, such as tablets and smart phones, have changed the landscape of infotainment by offering a platform that delivers massive amounts of increasingly personalized data, whether it’s stock prices, weather information, or the latest meme trending on Reddit. The automotive industry is quickly moving to adapt this concept to modern vehicles. In-vehicle infotainment means today’s cars offer (take a deep breath): connected bring-your-own-device compatible customizable wireless high-definition state-of-the-art voice-activated touch-screen enabled integrated dash-mounted media systems…but can you find the button that turns it on?

Automotive Infotainment Takes a Front Seat Fig. 1

Figure 1: Infotainment of Yesteryear

In ye olde 20th century, automotive infotainment meant an AM/FM radio. Eventually, the center stack contained a tape deck—and a CD player, if you were fancy; or a 3-disc CD player, if you were super fancy. Lights, gauges, and indicators displayed oil pressure, water temperature, and….well, you know the rest. The question of the hour was “what’s under the hood?” not “what’s on the dash?”

In the 21st century, the rules have changed. Most consumers today assess cars for practicality. While performance is still a factor, the question now is “what does my car have to offer that can enhance my productivity and overall driving experience?” We value our time, we value our experiences, and with a new era in consumer electronics, we value mobility and connectivity as well.

Automotive Infotainment Takes a Front Seat Fig. 2

Figure 2: Today's Infotainment System

You can expect more cars rolling off the line to come with some or all of these automotive infotainment features. Here’s what infotainment means as it applies to das Auto, in a nutshell:

Category Features Description
Human-Machine Interface (HMI)
  • Steering wheel buttons for eyes-free control
  • Touch screen
  • Voice-activation
Everything related to what the driver can see and touch, and how the driver interacts with the car.
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
  • USB
  • Bluetooth
  • WiFi
How a smart device connects to the car, or the car to the cloud, or the car to other cars. The US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced a potential regulation that will mandate vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications in the near future.
  • Navigation and traffic maps
  • Vehicle status
  • Weather alerts
The ‘info’ in infotainment. Navigation and maps, weather alerts, vehicle status (oil temp, oil pressure, battery voltage, water temp, tire pressure, tire temp). For some high-end cars like the 2014 Corvette Stingray, telematics also means displaying performance metrics such as g’s and lap times.
  • Satellite radio
  • DVD players
  • Online streaming
Entertainment, including media such as video, music, and podcast. Does not include recording capabilities.
Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)
  • Cameras (front, rear)
  • Black box
  • Collision warning
  • Blind spot detection
  • Radar
  • Lane-departure warning
Driver distraction is not preventable, but it is manageable. ADAS includes an ECU (electronic control unit) dedicated solely for data logging (a black box) that can be reviewed in the event of a crash, front/rear cameras to eliminate blind spots, radar to approximate distance relative to other vehicles, and a lane-departure warning system.

Table 1: Breakdown of Infotainment Features

Texas Instruments, Analog Devices, Freescale Semiconductor, and Altera are leading suppliers in offering innovative, AEC-Q qualified products for automotive infotainment systems.

For a comprehensive solution to automotive infotainment, Freescale has come out with the i.MX 6 Series of processors. By combining the power-efficient processing capabilities of the ARM Cortex-A9 architecture with leading edge 2D and 3D graphics, as well as high-definition video, the i.MX 6 Series of single-, dual-, and quad-core processors provide a new level of multimedia performance. Freescale has also partnered with QNX, the real-time operating system software company recently acquired by Blackberry, to deliver a complete hardware and software solution to the infotainment market.

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) are unique in that they allow engineers to future-proof their system with post-production upgrades, which eliminates the need to manufacture a new PCB for every board iteration. Altera’s Cyclone V FPGAs address the technical challenges of increased integration and performance, lower power, and faster time-to-market while meeting cost requirements. For infotainment, the Cyclone V supports multiple camera inputs and display interfaces, includes an integrated radio DSP, and has a hard-processor system centered on the dual-core ARM® Cortex™-A9 MPCore™ processor. With a rich set of peripheral blocks, Cyclone V FPGAs reduce system power, cost, and board size.

An infotainment system naturally carries a host of peripheral technologies to support its life in-vehicle, for the purpose of thermal management, power management, Media Oriented Systems Transport (MOST) bus, electrostatic discharge protection, and vibration management. Bourns’ CGA-MLC series ESD protectors, for example, are designed specifically for use in automotive circuits requiring electrostatic discharge protection.

Automotive Infotainment Takes a Front Seat Fig. 3
Figure 3: Driving Innovative Automotive Solutions. (2013). 1st ed. [ebook] Altera, p.1.

Factors affecting the development of Automotive Infotainment

The rapid development cycle of the consumer electronics industry has consumers acclimated to expect newer, better, and faster, feature-loaded products in a matter of months. Contrast that with the development cycle of the automotive industry, where the fastest time a new vehicle goes from design to production is about two years—and that’s pushing it.

In order to stay competitive, OEMs have been working quickly to implement connected features into new vehicles. Some OEMs, such as Ford and Mercedes Benz, have come under fire for their implementation of infotainment. Mercedes Benz was criticized for integrating Facebook and Twitter into their infotainment system. Ford caught flack for software bugs and a confusing user-interface. In the rush to be the first to market the 21st century in-car experience, car-makers risked coming across as off-point, haphazard, and counterproductive.

At the moment, In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) appears to be the Wild West of the auto industry. Different partnerships between OEMs and software providers as well as non-standard user interfaces (different icons and gestures for touch screen) stand in contrast to the de-facto standard that iOS and Android have created in the smartphone and tablet industry.

Standardization of infotainment has been attempted, although it has not been as successful as Android or iOS. The GENIVI Alliance (pronounced ‘gen-ee-vee’), founded in 2009, is a non-profit organization that develops standards, certifications, and open-source tools for OEMs, chip-makers, software developers, and other industry players in an effort to organize the development of IVI. GENIVI’s goals are:

  1. Deliver a reusable, open-source platform consisting of Linux-based core services, middleware, and open application layer interfaces
  2. Engage developers to deliver compliant applications
  3. Sponsor technical, marketing, and compliance programs

*FAQ | GENIVI Alliance

It remains to be seen whether or not GENIVI will lose relevance in the market, especially with recent developments on the brewing infotainment battle between giants Apple and Google. This year Apple launched CarPlay, an operating system (OS) that allows compatibility between the car and other iOS devices. CarPlay has garnered interest from over fifteen OEMs including BMW, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, and Mazda, just to name a few. Apple has also partnered with Pioneer and Alpine to offer after-market products based on CarPlay.

On the northwestern front, Microsoft is struggling to get back in the game. Microsoft’s previous in-car platform, Sync, showed initial success by being selected by Ford for its infotainment system; however, that story ended with Ford announcing it will not continue to implement Sync in its vehicles, turning to QNX instead. Microsoft’s new solution--Windows in the Car—seeks to integrate Windows-based mobile devices with the vehicle’s display, similar to Apple’s CarPlay. Microsoft has also partnered with Sony and Alpine to sell after-market products based on the Windows in the Car platform.

Google, not to be left out, announced recently that it has over forty partners in its Open Automotive Alliance. With an IVI system based on Android (Android Auto), Google has partnered with Audi, Chevrolet, Fiat, Honda, Ford, and electronics companies such as Delphi, LG, Panasonic, Renesas, and Freescale Semiconductor. This bodes well for Google and the future of automotive engineering, as major trends in the auto industry revolve around efficiency, connectivity, and safety—something Google is already working towards with its Self-Driving Car.

Along with standardization of hardware and software as a whole, consumers are also a major driver of the scope of infotainment. Customers who view an infotainment system negatively may apply that negativity towards the whole car and the brand itself. On the other side of the coin, customers who view infotainment positively may welcome the change and praise the OEM for its insight. Concerns such as driver distraction have been partially addressed with driver-assist systems, but solutions to more complex issues such as privacy, security, and digital storage will continue to develop as infotainment matures.

With the wealth of features that automotive infotainment offers, OEMs and governments must take a serious look at features that are productive vs. features that are superfluous. It also requires delineating between driver-centric or passenger-centric features. Telematics is driver-centric, entertainment (Twitter/YouTube) is passenger-centric—as a matter of safety, the two must not cross over.

Electronic systems are finding a place in every aspect of a car. Just consider recent advances in automotive electronics: electronic stability control, traction control, airbag safety, power steering, satellite radio, emissions controls, active suspension, anti-lock brakes, noise cancellation, powertrain (hybrid/all-electric), the list goes on and on. Automotive infotainment is growing in popularity and taking root as another major driver of competition in the near future. Since it is such a new field, infotainment has yet to take on an exact definition, which is part of the reason it’s so exciting. We have yet to witness the latest technologies and applications that will evolve as cars become more connected and highly integrated smart devices. Truly, the only limit to the development of infotainment is our imagination.

We're right on the cusp of the next generation of automobiles. Not only will future cars be safer, connected, personalized, and cleaner for the environment, they'll also become "smart phones on wheels".

Naima Rivas is a technical marketing writer for Mouser Electronics, an Electrical Engineering student at the University of Texas at Arlington, and a member of Formula SAE and IEEE professional societies. She is interested in everything electrical, from power systems to data acquisition and robotics to racecars. When she’s not building wiring harnesses, giving presentations, or writing technical articles, her pastimes include playing golf, eating Italian food, and going on adventures with family and friends.

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