The other day a friend picked me up in a new hybrid SUV for a trip to a favorite hiking spot. Considering that I still drive a car from the last century, I couldn't help but take inventory of all the electronic goodies. The highest coolness factor went to the voice-activated navigation system. You can drive into a city and ask it to "show me Thai restaurants." It will show you on a map all the ones in the vicinity, let you to select one, and then calculate the best route and provide visual and audio directions. Green curry with tofu anyone?


The SUV's in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system includes much more, of course. For instance, there's also XM NavTraffic and NavWeather for real-time local traffic and weather reports. The first is great for getting out of the city fast. The second is perfect for a last-minute weather check before heading out on the trail.


This experience piqued my interest for how manufacturers are packing so much connectivity and so many capabilities into IVI systems at a price point that still allows auto manufacturers to be competitive in price with one another on vehicles. Already today's IVI systems incorporate everything from satellite navigation, DVD and digital television, Internet access, connectivity to a range of consumer electronics (CE) devices, and many other features. You won't find this in an econobox, of course, but you don't have to move far up an auto manufacturer's line to start seeing some serious intelligent, connected electronics.


The challenges to bringing such a system to market on time and on budget are many, but in talking with Christian Riesinger, R&D Manager, and Christian Eder, Marketing Manager, Congatec AG (an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance), I learned there are some significant shortcuts that IVI system OEMs can take.


The first is to start design with the new low-power Intel® In-Vehicle Infotainment Reference Design (Intel® IVI Reference Design). This open, standards-based platform avoids the proprietary trap so many IVI systems fall into by: using proprietary subsystems; working so hard to integrate them; and lacking a clear evolution path because all the subsystem suppliers are not on the same map.


Starting with the Intel IVI Reference Design enables you to avoid these issues, plus gives you a jump start by providing a broad range of IVI features, ranging from satellite navigation to hands-free communications to rear-view cameras. The platform is highly integrated, but also highly flexible. This allows OEMs to easily scale their designs to different vehicles and markets. It also gives you a simplified path for future upgrades.


The second shortcut is something Congatec recently developed: the conga-IVI Starterkit. This is basically an Intel IVI Reference Design carrier board married to a touch-screen display and a conga-CA COM Express module. The result is a DIN-sized platform with everything you need to build an IVI system. Congatec is an associate member of Alliance.


The carrier board provides a variety of vehicle-specific interfaces, such as APIX, MOST, and CAN. You can implement these interfaces with Alliance member Xilinx's Automotive Spartan®-3E field-programmable gate array (FPGA). IVI OEMs can add or remove interfaces from the FPGA as needed and can select the FPGA device density that provides an optimal solution. The conga IVI Starterkit also includes six USB 2.0 ports, a built-in USB GPS receiver, integrated Bluetooth®, a radio tuner with antennas, and an SDIO expansion card interface. The SDIO interface is perfect for integrating low-cost SD cards for mass storage or for enhanced functions, such as a TV tuner or WiMAX interface.


So what's at the heart of the conga IVI Starterkit that makes it so intelligent and low-power? The Intel® Atom™ processor Z530 at 1.6 GHz and the Intel® System Controller Hub US15W. This combination delivers the high levels of 3D performance needed for advanced human-machine interface (HMIs). The platform can independently drive two separate flatpanel displays for different front- and rear-seat applications. Integrated hardware video decoding allows the platform to play high-resolution video smoothly with minimal processor loading. That should keep young passengers in the rear seat happy.


The Intel Atom processor has a thermal design power (TDP) of just 2W. This allows OEMs to forgo the fan. This, of course, reduces noise and increases reliability (no fan to break down).


Another key benefit of using an Intel Atom processor is its Intel® architecture. This provides full interoperability with lots of proven, standards-based software. For example, the conga-IVI Starterkit can run the Linux Platform for Infotainment from Wind River, an associate member of the Alliance.


The conga-IVI Starterkit gives IVI OEMs a true advantage in bringing solutions to market on time and on budget. But there's something else you can't ignore either. Design freedom. By removing many of the integration and interoperability hurdles that IVI OEMs face, it allows you to concentrate on features that differentiate your products. It also smoothes the road ahead by proving a clear upgrade path for upcoming designs without worrying about getting trapped in some proprietary nightmare where your tires spin and you just can't get any traction for the future.


What do you think about starter kits for IVI systems? What kind of things you could do with such a solution under the hood?