State of Automotive Modular Hardware

<State of Automotive Modular Hardware>

Car manufacturers struggle to meet consumer demands to keep pace, implementing the latest technology in cars rolling off the assembly line. This has been a difficult task, due to the cost and maintenance requirements it takes to keep the car’s head unit up to date with current mobile technology, which is developed and adopted at breakneck speeds. Some manufacturers, like Volkswagen and Audi, for example, are tackling the issue by adding modular hardware that can be upgraded throughout the entire life of the car.

Looking at Audi’s work with Nvidia, it’s easy to see the benefits of leveraging modular hardware in the car industry. Through the partnership, Audi simply inserts the latest processors into its vehicles’ head units, allowing for faster evolution of in-vehicle systems. As new models are introduced, the latest chip gives the vehicle the highest computing power and graphics performance available. This approach narrows the technology gap that traditionally exists between consumer electronics and the long development lifecycles of in-vehicle systems.
The Challenges

Although the process is as simple as popping a chip in and out every time an upgrade is available, the display screen and capabilities remain the same. So while the solution improves processor speed and is less costly, the significance of each upgrade is limited since the screen resolution and other aspects of the hardware remains unchanged.

This method is currently only targets high-end vehicles. Audi customers may not mind taking their car in for service to replace the chip while they go in for regular maintenance appointments. With lower-end vehicles, consumers don’t expect to be frequent the dealership, so the upgrades aren’t especially realistic.

Alternative upgrading

An alternative to meeting consumer expectations is to have their smartphone drive the in-vehicle experience. In this vision, the car becomes a mere terminal to the phone. Several phone-based solutions have emerged such as the Connected Car Consortium’s MirrorLink, Apple’s CarPlay, Google’s Android Auto and Abalta’s WEBLINK.

This approach even works with existing vehicles, not originally designed to support the technology. There is an emerging, niche class of device, ‘factory interface kits,’ provided by such companies as Grom Audio, Navtool, Navtv, Rosen Electronics and AAMP,that are designed to deliver smartphone functionality to existing vehicles. Originally, these devices allowed music stored on iPods and similar devices to be played on the car’s audio system and later they evolved to support smartphones. As these systems evolve, they increasingly tie into the manufacturers’ hardware to allow for steering wheel controls and other physical buttons within the car to be used to control the phone or music-player device. This approach allows videos stored on an iPod or smartphone to be played over the head unit screen.

Recently some of these devices incorporated navigation software, providing consumers an aftermarket option if they opted out of the manufacturers’ built-in navigation system upon purchase. In contrast to a Portable Navigation Device (PND) such as those by Garmin or TomTom or the aftermarket solutions mentioned above, the systems are fully integrated into the vehicle and feel more like the factory systems they compete against.

Meeting consumer technology demands

While I give hats off to such manufacturers as Audi that are experimenting with sophisticated technology like modular hardware, there is still a lot of work to be done to provide consumers the connected experience they expect. As car manufacturers continue to search for solutions, they should start by thinking about how to leverage the device they are trying to emulate in their vehicles: the smartphone itself.

Frank Gonzalez