I’ve been predicting a great deal of innovation in cars with the arrival of robocars and other automatic driving technologies. But there’s a lot of other computerization and new electronics that will be making its way into cars, and to make that happen, we need to make the car into a platform for innovation, rather than something bought as a walled garden from the car vendor.
In the old days, it was fairly common to get a car without a radio, and to buy the radio of your choice. This happened even in higher end cars. However, the advantages in sound quality and dash integration from a factory-installed radio started to win out, especially with horizontal market Japanese companies who were both good at cars and good at radios.
For real innovation, you want a platform, where aftermarket companies come in and compete. And you want early adopters to be able to replace what they buy whenever they get the whim. We replace our computers and phones far more frequently than our cars and the radios inside them.
To facilitate this, I think the car’s radio and “occupant computer” should be merged, but split into three parts:
- The speakers and power amplifier, which will probably last the life of the car, and be driven with some standard interface such as 7.1 digital audio over optical fiber.
- The “guts” which probably live in the trunk or somewhere else not space constrained, and connect to the other parts
- The “interface” which consists of the dashboard panel and screen, with controls, and any other controls and screens, all wired with a network to the guts.
Ideally the hookup between the interface and the guts is a standardized protocol. I think USB 3.0 can handle it and has the bandwidth to display screens on the dashboard, and on the back of the headrests for rear passenger video. Though if you want to imagine an HDTV for the passengers, its possible that we would add a video protocol (like HDMI) to the USB. But otherwise USB is general enough for everything else that will connect to the guts. USB’s main flaw is its master-slave approach, which means the guts needs to be both a master, for control of various things in the car, and a slave, for when you want to plug your laptop into the car and control elements in the car — and the radio itself.
Of course there should be USB jacks scattered around the car to plug in devices like phones and memory sticks and music players, as well as to power devices up on the dash, down in the armrests, in the trunk, under the hood, at the mirror and right behind the grille.
Finally there need to be some antenna wires. That’s harder to standardize but you can be we need antennas for AM/FM/TV, satellite radio, GPS, cellular bands, and various 802.11 protocols including the new 802.11p. In some cases, however, the right solution is just to run USB 3.0 to places an antenna might go, and then have a receiver or tranceiver with integrated antenna which mounts there. A more general solution is best.
This architecture lets us replace things with the newest and latest stuff, and lets us support new radio protocols which appear. It lets us replace the guts if we have to, and replace the interface panels, or customize them readily to particular cars.
Operation, safety and convenience
There will be some call to separate the passenger computer (outer) from car driving and safety systems (inner.) You probably want a different computer handling engine timings, cruise control etc. On the other hand, to the extent that these systems have user interfaces (ie. turning on the cruise control or telling it to speed up or slow down) it would be more elegant if those could be in the external system. However, this may prove to be too difficult or risky, so there may need to be two computers, and at least two interface panels, with one panel dedicated to car operation controls. One can debate whether some controls, such as wipers, interior lights, door locks, windows, hazards etc. belong in the inner or outer system. Chances are we want to work hard to make the inner system 100% reliable and some functions will just have to remain within it, and not even accessible from outside.
To a lesser degree, the same debate can be made about displays. Is it safe if the speedometer is in the more vulnerable and complex external system? You can drive without one, and of course there are even three ways to learn your speed — the wheel sensor. the GPS and inertial sensors. Some displays, like tachometer, fuel level, battery voltage and oil temperature might be OK in the external system as you can operate a car fine without them as long as you get warning lights — many cars don’t even have them. One option might be to have all these controls in the inner system but without dedicated screen real estate. That way the outer system (which gets much more screen real estate and possibly a heads-up display) can be the normal display, but you can always switch what shows on the internal display.
Most importantly the outer computer should be able to sense and read everything it can, so apps can be written to do useful data with that. Every transducer and sensor the car has, even if it can’t issue commands to critical systems. It should know how you are steering, if the wheels lose traction, if the engine revs too high.
Likewise for controls it’s OK if the outer computer can open the doors and windows, I think, but you would also have a means to do it via the more secure inner computer. Chances are the inner computer is replaced rarely, and it possibly lasts the life of the car, so the less UI it normally does the better.
The outer computer would do all the cool new stuff. It would be a radio, of course, but also a music player or an interface to your portable music player. It would play other media too, like videos for those who are not the driver. It would offer the navigation system, and perhaps an in-car cell phone or bluetooth handsfree to your actual cell phone. It would sync up via 802.11 with your home servers when it is parked in the driveway, offering up to date news programs, music and video even without traditional broadcast radio. It would receive traffic broadcasts, traffic light timings and any other useful data.
If given control of the mirrors and seats, and knowledge of whose key is in the ignition (or whose phones are in the car) it would customize the vehicle to you, moving seats and mirrors to the right places, and setting controls to the desired UI settings. It would pass GPS data to your phone to power its own location aware services without it needing to run its own GPS, though it would also probably be providing power to the phone so it doesn’t have to care. However, it probably will be able to get much better GPS and network signals than the phone. (For this to work well, network companies will have to get used to not charging you twice to have a network connection both in the car and on a phone that is in the car.)
But most of all, it would provide functions that nobody has yet thought of. The real goal of a system like this, with easy to upgrade components, is to let companies come up with cool new things and let us buy them or download them. There will be, as Apple likes to day, an app for that.
As noted, the outer computer will let you download and run apps. Every upgrade will not require new hardware, far from it.
If we can convince car makers to adopt this architecture, a million flowers will bloom. But convincing them is hard, since they currently get a lot of money for selling you the radio and navigation system. They like to control their walled garden as much as anybody. But if it can open up, this will be the seat of innovation in many cars, because it will be the one place that 3rd party vendors can get their hooks in with something new.