Cars and Computers

In 2005, I attended a press conference hosted by Frank Ordonez, President of Delphi Product and Service Solutions. Mr. Ordonez is known and respected for his deep understanding of the forces that drive the automotive industry. At that conference he presented the strategy behind some of his company’s products, and he neatly summed it all up with one sentence: “The center stack belongs to the customer.”

Traditionally, ‘center stack’ means the entertainment system. From a simple radio, it grew to include a tape player, then a CD changer and now a port for connecting other devices like digital media players. Today’s center stack might also include a display screen for the navigation system. On various models that same screen is used to display video from a rearview camera, HVAC controls, a trip computer, vehicle information and even the owner’s manual. Screens are also used to operate the entertainment system even if the car doesn’t have any of those other features, because it eliminates knobs and switches.

The point Mr. Ordonez made in 2005 is that, as people become accustomed to having a computer screen in the dashboard, they will expect to be able to use it like a computer of their own. Only two years later, Ford came to market with Sync, “a fully integrated in-vehicle communications and entertainment system.”

Sync is a voice-activated system that uses Bluetooth to connect the center stack to a cell phone or smart phone. It’s not just a hands-free cell phone connection: it lets people access the Internet through the car. There isn’t room here to describe every feature, but one is text-to-speech; Sync will “read aloud” cell phone text messages.

Sync runs on the Microsoft Auto 4.1 platform developed specifically for automotive applications. It’s not particularly powerful, but it is a real computer, complete with a WiFi 802.11 b/g Internet connection. This system is completely separate from the on-board computer network that operates the car and all its other systems. The center stack computer cannot interfere with the operation of the car. But.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication is being tested right now in several U.S. cities. With this technology, vehicles will report their position and movement to vehicles around them equipped with the same technology. This information is intended to be used by the vehicle to operate the throttle, brakes and electric steering to prevent a collision. This isn’t fantasy. All the technology needed to implement this is on many cars being built today. All that’s needed is software.

What does this mean to you? Think about the kind of tools a tech might use to deal with cars like this.


Pull quotePeople will expect to be able to use it like a computer of their own.