Car PCs Hit The Road

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Giant names like Microsoft, Intel and Ford are making nascent efforts to shift the Car PC industry into drive. But an absence of standards, and an abundance of functions and new technology, gives systems builders and the channel a chance to lead the pack.

Remember your father's old car? The one where the only complicated accessories inside were the radio and the cigarette lighter?

How times have changed. Just think, perhaps, about your commute to work—about the array of tools within arms' reach of the driver's seat: DVD players, satellite radios, GPS mapping systems, monitoring devices, backup video cameras, forward-facing security cameras, MP3 players, airbags, temperature gauges, tire pressure monitors—that a car isn't just a car. It's a supernetwork in motion.

The problem, though, is that unlike most computer networks, the auto network has been one largely without computing standards, easy building blocks for systems builders or solution providers, and a channel that is largely controlled by the auto industry, which has a different business model.

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The absence of standards means that PC controls and management of multiple devices and telematics can be a from-the-ground-up solution in one deployment after another. So, a fleet of trucks that integrates GPS mapping and point-of-sale devices with a data warehouse might be deployed differently than another fleet with the same devices. A van can integrate management of a DVD console and cellphone address book several different ways.

Therefore, it's possible for a solution provider to literally reinvent a set of wheels each time an automobile is outfitted with PC technology. While that can be an integration nightmare, some see a tremendous opportunity for the computer reseller channel.

"There are no standards—and that is why the market can grow," said Ted Hunter, general manager of Champion Networks, a Brunswick, Maine-based solution provider who is also the driver and tuner of a successful drag racing car. (Hunter has been sponsored by, among others, Premio Computer and Lexmark on the pro circuit.)

"[For example,] if you could come out with a $99 instant mileage verification, showing your gasoline mileage and the miles you've traveled per tank of gas, you'd sell it to probably two-thirds of the people in the state of Maine immediately," Hunter said.

"Why a company like an HP or a Dell doesn't want to go into this space is beyond me," he wonders. "Maybe they have to try three different things before they get it right, but they will make money. It would also establish them as a company that cares about the environment, which will bring them more business."

Next: Muscling Into The Car

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Muscling Into The Car
It's not that big players in the industry are staying out of the car biz. Chip giant Intel, for example, has an entire lineup of automotive products from chassis controllers to MCS 96 microcontroller linecards, which support in-vehicle networking. Microsoft recently rolled out Microsoft Auto—what the Redmond, Wash.-based company describes as a suite of functions that can be integrated into an automotive PC to provide voice command control, networking with MP3s and other multimedia and navigation devices. Microsoft also refers to it as a hardware reference design—a device based on a 32-bit, 400-MHz ARM11 processor; 256 MB of NAND flash memory; 64 MB of DDRAM Bluetooth connectivity; a vehicle bus interface and microphone for voice interaction with the system.

Microsoft Auto comes on the heels of an announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, where Microsoft and automaker Ford locked arms around an offering called "Sync," which uses PC technology to connect infotainment devices within an automobile. The technology was slated for rollout with the 2008 Ford Focus vehicles, with the software company and the carmaker targeting the consumer segment of "Generation Y" buyers, to act as early adopters. The rollout was expected to continue in a full array of Ford cars, and also its Lincoln lineup.

In September, Microsoft and Siemens VDO Automotive, based in Germany, agreed to collaborate on new automotive PC-based systems that will control in-car navigation and entertainment systems. They say the collaboration between the two technology companies will create new, cutting-edge products by 2009—much faster than the current production cycles of the big automakers. The companies said the first item on the agenda is to collaborate on a multimedia platform, built by Siemens VDO, that will be based on Microsoft Auto. Microsoft and Siemens said they believe electronics manufacturers will gather around the partnership to develop new in-vehicle devices.

While the ultimate success of Microsoft's initiatives remain to be seen, the success of the Car PC space overall is set for significant growth, according to some experts. The North American passenger vehicle telematics industry will grow from a $2.05 billion market in 2006 to more than double that—to $4.86 billion—by 2013, according to research firm FrostSullivan, based in Palo Alto, Calif. But because telematics are considered and priced as a "luxury" feature in new automobiles, the marketplace has yet to broadly adopt the technology.

Next: Driving Innovation

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Driving Innovation
While the Microsoft technology will bring a computer-industry suite of standards to the automotive PC space, not everyone has been waiting around. HiPe PC, an Emeryville, Calif.-based custom systems builder, has been in business for several years, and last November began offering systems for integration with automobiles.

"Within five years, there will be a majority of vehicles with some telematics," said Richard Stenlund, general manager of HiPe PC.

One lineup of systems his company builds is Car PCs, including the Driv-N Infill G4. That system can be integrated into the car, and maintains network connectivity with a home system. Its functionality includes One Voice speech recognition, mobile Internet access, an adapter for XM Satellite radio, a motorized touch-screen that can control a rear DVD player and AM/FM Tuner, voice-prompted GPS navigation and Bluetooth hands-free calling. That system is priced at $2,189—or about 5 percent of the cost of a luxury car or sport utility vehicle. And HiPe PC builds other models, listing prices at $1,315, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and one at $1,045 with a VIA processor. The systems are capable of networking with home and work PCs and, Stenlund said, connectivity has proven to be smooth.

"It's just a decentralization of computers," he noted.

Stenlund said the early adopters have been higher-income customers who are looking to improve the experience of their newer cars. Slowly, the sphere of customers has begun to expand, he said.

"People are always a little hesitant at first," Stenlund said. "Within a week of purchasing it, they're driving in the car and reaching to turn on the computer-recorded TV show."

Of course, he encourages his customers to watch the road—a key feature of the voice-activated and voice-controlled functions integrated into the Car PC.

Several technology advances have conspired to launch these solutions even further into the future. Increased availability of Wi-Fi and wireless broadband throughout North America; mobility-optimized, dual-core processors from companies including Intel and Advanced Micro Devices; and sweeping advances in digital storage have all been a boon in terms of capacities, pricing and performance.

"Especially with the vehicle PCs, we're seeing an increased focus on digital storage, where you can purchase digital media like MP3s online, download them, play them back and then extend them throughout a network—including the car," Stenlund said.

Curves Ahead
Systems builders say that some in the market don't want an automobile that's integrated with a Windows desktop—perhaps a case of blue-screen fear. And several say they have had more success building systems and selling them to resellers and customers in the European markets.

"Business is booming, but the United States is behind Europe," said Diep Ngo, a sales representative with Mini-Box, a Fremont, Calif.-based systems builder that makes the Voom PC, a Car PC based on x86 standards and built in a mini-ITX form factor. The systems can run either Linux or Windows, and can be built with either Intel or VIA processors, including the Jetway 1.5-GHz x86 VIA C7 CPU.

Hunter envisions a Car PC segment that can combine the best elements of "infotainment" networking with the best elements of automobile performance management.

Professionals in auto racing, he said, have used PCs with surgical precision "to measure rolling resistance in tires," to improve gas consumption and the performance of ignition systems, and to keep valuable machinery tuned to be competitive. "These guys, with a computer, will go in there and tweak and get more power out of these vehicles and sometimes more gas mileage."