Center stack is new high-stakes battleground; showdown with safety regulators loomsMon, 05 Sep 2011 00:00:00 -0700
For auto suppliers and gadget companies eager to get a piece of the auto industry, the hottest chunk of vehicle real estate now is the center stack.
That corridor of interior space, running from the driver's right hip up through the center of the cockpit to the bottom of the windshield, has become a California gold rush of opportunity.
But it is less so for traditional suppliers of molded plastics, cables, levers, buttons and radios. Rather, that real estate is being staked out by many companies new to the industry, including software providers, camera makers, electronics firms and data integrators.
The growth of the smartphone--which can connect the car to the Internet--is driving rapid change in the car, especially in the head unit, or the central communications system.
"More of the value of the interior is being built around connectivity," says Jeff DeBest, group vice president for global electronics at Johnson Controls Inc., a supplier giant that makes billions on vehicle interiors. "More and more of it is the software component. The hardware almost becomes a commodity. The center stack is the hotbed for all this."
There is one big problem.
Safety advocates, from local law enforcement agencies to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, want consumers to have fewer distractions, not more.
Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, is beating the drum to get the auto industry to resist adding features that are now technically possible. Cockpit distractions, such as text messaging and YouTube downloads, cause accidents, he says.
"Every single time someone takes their focus off the road--even if just for a moment--they put their lives and the lives of others in danger," LaHood said last year. "Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible, and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating. There's no call or e-mail so important that it can't wait."
A showdown is coming. As a new era of potentially rich vehicle technology is opening up, the voices of safety are rising up to check it.
Garmin International Inc. is a good example of a nontraditional supplier seeking a share of center stack revenue. Garmin has introduced an infotainment system for the 2012 Suzuki Grand Vitara and SX4.
The detachable gadget, dubbed nuLink! which plugs into the center stack, offers turn-by-turn route navigation, a Google search function, weather information, flight status, movie listings, phone listings and traffic alerts.
The voice-activated system enables motorists to make hands-free calls, and a link to its PhotoLive service enables motorists to view photographic images of the road ahead. The unit can be detached from the car for pedestrian use.
Also typical of the new wannabe suppliers is ParkingCarma, an information network that communicates between vehicles and parking garages to notify drivers where available spaces can be found. The service would be free to use, free to automakers to provide as a feature and free to parking garage owners who participate.
ParkingCarma would make its money by charging drivers a $1 fee to handle the parking transaction if a driver decided to use a space found through the system.
But first, automakers--which have adopted a go-slow approach on new features--will need to make room for the parking information to appear on a vehicle's navigation display system.
Ford Motor Co.'s MyFord Touch illustrates the pitfalls of distracting features on the center stack. MyFord Touch--which is used with Sync, Ford's connectivity and voice-activation system--is a color-coded screen of vehicle controls. Consumer Reports panned MyFord Touch this year, and the system has generated many owner complaints.
Also seeking space on the center stack are companies selling smartphone interfacing, data downloads, e-mail communications, Internet access and display monitors for back-up cameras. And perhaps most critical: the unseen computerized brains that make it all work.
Take Wind River, a subsidiary of U.S. software giant Intel Corp.
"Automotive is a fast-growing market for us," says Franz Walkembach, senior product manager of Wind River in Munich. "Consumers want more functions. The auto industry knows it has to catch up."
Wind River provides a component that consumers are probably unaware of: an infotainment open platform.
It's not a radio, not a DVD player, not a vehicle navigation system--those are made by other companies. A platform is the software coding that allows navigation systems, radios, data streaming, iPods and the expanding universe of smartphone applications and content to mix and mingle in a vehicle's center stack.
The computing industry, which is now embracing the auto industry, is moving rapidly to cloud-based technology. That means that databases, such as cellphone address books, street maps, music libraries and personal appointment books, increasingly will be stored on the Internet's storage devices--the cloud--not on chips in the auto. In this rapidly approaching future, vehicles must become the glitch-free connector and communicator.
"Inside the car today, you have a huge network of computer control networks that have to talk to each other," Walkembach says. "Nowadays we have more than 60,000 requirements for a head unit, which uses 10 million lines of code. And that's going to double generation over generation. So this is just the beginning."
New safety devices, too
The industry is still estimating how far the revenue opportunity for the new center stack will go. A study done by the nonprofit Intelligent Transportation Society of America in Washington and released in August estimated that in-vehicle intelligent components represented a North American industry value of $4.25 billion in 2008, the most recent year for which data were available. That content is expected to increase to $8.4 billion by 2015, according to the association.
Applying those totals to sales in 2008 and a forecast for 2015, that's an estimated $320 per vehicle on average in 2008 and $560 in 2015.
But association CEO Scott Belcher cautions that while the figures indicate the growth trends in vehicle connectivity and other center stack-based features, the dollar figures may be terribly conservative.
For instance, NHTSA has said it will decide in 2013 whether to mandate vehicle-to-vehicle communications in autos.
If it does, that could open another level of supplier opportunity for center stack services and features, as could a proposed federal rule that would require backup cameras in vehicles starting in 2014.
Smartphones drive change
The overwhelming factor driving the center-stack revolution is consumer connectivity with the Internet. And in an era of rapid change, cellphone players are looking for real estate in the auto.
One of them is cellphone maker Nokia. Nokia believes it has a key role to play in autos and is eagerly pitching automakers on its connectivity technology, says Chris Weber, president of Nokia North America.
All vehicle information and consumer data, Weber says, can be integrated and run through the driver's phone. The information, which once had to be read on a screen, can be converted into a voice message that drivers can hear without taking their eyes off the road.
"You can bring in sensors and diagnostics applications via the phone," Weber says. "It opens up a lot of opportunities. Map data gets transferred to voice. Scheduling becomes a voice relay. Tire sensors? We could do that.
"Internet movies ..."--he pauses, touching on one of the stickiest issues in the center stack world. "The manufacturers would have to decide what gets presented where in the head unit."
The 2012 Range Rover Evoque uses a dual-view display monitor that would enable a front passenger to watch a movie on the center stack during a trip. But the movie is visible only from that angle. From the driver's side, only navigation maps can be seen. So far, the technology is being used only on Evoques sold in Europe.
Weak link: Humans
"Customers want freedom," says Linda Marshall, who was named president of General Motors' OnStar affiliate this year and hopes to expand OnStar's presence in vehicles around the industry. "But they want nondistracting solutions."
Data are "the next big thing," she says, referring to the technology of bringing cloud-based information such as e-mails and Web searches into the car.
Envisioning OnStar's near future, she says: "Voice activation. That's where we have to go, and the sky's the limit. We're not an Internet connection. But we might do that in the future."
Tom Dunn, director of marketing for Panasonic Automotive Systems in Southfield, Mich., notes that Panasonic has evolved over the years from a supplier of AM/FM car radios to a maker of display monitors for back-up cameras and navigation systems.
"The center stack is clearly where the action is right now, where automakers want to apply their advanced technology and differentiate themselves. But the real focus right now is HMI," Dunn says, using the common abbreviation for human-machine interface.
The ideal interface lets drivers use various features and information coming into the car's cockpit while keeping their eyes and minds on the road. Voice activation keeps drivers' eyes on the road but not necessarily their minds. So far the ideal human-machine interface is a work in progress.
"Getting HMI right is what automakers are most concerned with as they consider all this technology," Dunn says.
The stakes are high. NHTSA says that in 2009, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction--16 percent of U.S. crash fatalities.
LaHood's Department of Transportation is working on a study to show just how dangerous common features such as navigation systems and cellphones are in traffic. Those findings will be announced later this year.
A lot of dollars and the safety of the car of the future are riding on just how far LaHood wants to take his crusade against driver distraction.
Center stack gold rush
A sampling of services, software and devices that reside in a vehicle's center stack--or may in coming years
-- Smartphone applications, such as Internet radio, e-mail, voice mail, traffic and weather alerts
-- Head unit, the computer that connects devices and software
-- Voice-activated commands
-- Data-to-voice conversions
-- Display screen for backup cameras
IN THE WORKS
-- Vehicle-to-vehicle communications to avoid accidents
-- Cloud-based data storage
-- Personal calendar updates from the cloud
-- More smartphone applications, such as parking-spot finders.
-- Diabetic blood sugar test
By Lindsay Chappell- Automotive News