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Electronics Production | July 31, 2009

Auto Head Units with a little design help from PCs?

With the automotive industry in the dumps, shipments of auto head units are on the wane as well, an event that should compel OEMs to attract buyers by borrowing a page from the PC industry, according to iSuppli.
Global OEM shipments of auto head units are expected to decline to 48.4 million units in 2009, down 25.1% from 64.6% in 2008. Shipments won’t recover to the recent peak level of 68.3 million units in 2007 until 2014, when they will reach 69.8 million, as presented in the attached figure. The automotive head unit serves as the user interface for cars’ infotainment systems, traditionally providing control of simple functions like CD players but increasingly acting as the front end to a rising number of more advanced features such as navigation systems, Bluetooth cell phone connections, hard disk drives and iPod interfaces. With the functionality of head units evolving, so must the automakers’ approach to designing them, iSuppli believes. “Automotive infotainment system and head unit designers could learn much from the development of the PC,” said Richard Robinson, principal analyst, automotive electronics, for iSuppli. “Early PCs offered a very limited range of default technologies on the motherboard, with additional features like networking, graphics-processing, storage-interface and audio support all handled by ‘plug-in’ solutions, which added to their Bills of Materials (BOMs) and often were difficult to set up. “As a result of the commoditization all of these applications, it is now practically impossible to sell a PC without a very high baseline of standard technology. With this paradigm shift, typical users now see product differentiation at the software rather than the hardware level, with the PC environment becoming a generic platform, or host, for an extremely diverse range of software applications.” This high-level of built-in functionality has allowed PCs to move beyond simply running business productivity applications and enabled the support of a wide variety of new entertainment and communications applications based on consumer demand. “Part of the success of the PC platform is that it is a very customer-focused piece of hardware,” Mr Robinson said. “In fact, with today’s PCs, most users are not concerned with the hardware, but rather with applications.” Beyond hardware iSuppli believes automotive manufacturers in their next-generation head unit designs need to rapidly adopt strategies that migrate away from hardware differentiation and move toward a software download/upgrade environment. It is essential that the burden of mass firmware updates, such as Bluetooth profile updates or new application installs, be passed onto the consumer. Enabling vehicle-owner downloads via a Web portal will be vital in the more dynamic environment created by consumer devices being bought into the vehicle. This approach would ensure that flexibility is “designed in” for the typical 10-year ownership cycle of a vehicle. Universal head units The increasing functionality available on inexpensive devices such as Portable Navigation Devices (PNDs) and Personal Media Players (PMPs) is leading consumers to expect equivalent capabilities from their embedded head units at little or no additional cost. Because of this, automakers must provide head units that carry sufficient functionality to support the downloading of software on all levels of cars, even low-cost entry-level vehicles. “The typical buyer of a entry-level vehicle is likely to be younger and more tech-savvy, and will have higher expectations in terms of system requirements than other consumers,” Mr Robinson said. “Vehicle manufacturers can take advantage of this evolving competitive situation by supporting a critical baseline of head-unit audio, visual and interface features on all models. These high volumes will lead to lower per-unit-costs for head units and increased customer satisfaction.” Synching with Sync Ford’s Sync solution has shown that a full-featured hardware baseline and software-driven approach able to span all types of models can succeed, and is heralding a paradigm shift in the design of head units. “Sync is a reasonably priced, standards-based platform that offers embedded Bluetooth and USB with voice activation for connecting phones and compressed music players,” Robinson said. “Critically, it was targeted at the mass market from the start rather than following the traditional path of starting in a higher-level-specification vehicle and then trickling down to more affordable cars.” Going forward, iSuppli believes that the new default baselines for audio will include support for analog and digital radio, multichannel speaker support, as well as voice control for accessing flash-based media (iPod/MP3 players). LCD/OLED displays and low-cost navigation are default requirements, with Mobile TV and back-up camera support as strong optional requirements. Image source: Dell
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