Most of us have had our fair share of bad driving experiences and unpleasant road trips akin to Clark Griswold's mishap-filled cross-country trek depicted in the 1983 cult classic "National Lampoon's Vacation." Vicious picnic-ruining dogs and deceased aunts aside, we all know what it feels like to be uncomfortable and bored while stuck in the car for any extended period of time.


Fortunately, embedded systems designers are developing In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) platforms to incorporate digital content into automotive head units, turning our cars into wired workplaces and home theaters on wheels. With Bluetooth, GPS, MP3/DVD players, Internet connectivity, and a host of other capabilities integrated onboard, these systems are enabling drivers and passengers to communicate, navigate, rock out, and log in while on the road.


Several Intel® Embedded Alliance member companies are working with Intel to develop Open Infotainment Platforms (OIPs) that will help automakers and suppliers bring IVI offerings to market quickly and cost-effectively. Using Intel architecture as the base technology, software providers, board manufacturers, and complementary silicon vendors are advancing automotive electronics innovation through their contributions to developing these interoperable OIPs.


One such platform that supports the Intel® Atom™ processor, the QNX CAR application platform from Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member QNX Software Systems, provides pre-integrated reference implementations that help companies prototype their products for free. Ten OEMs, 13 Tier One suppliers, eight non-automotive market leaders, and three major initiatives headed by multi-company collaborations are currently using QNX CAR as their base platform, says Andy Gryc, QNX automotive product marketing manager. Commercial production programs based on QNX CAR are expected to start rolling out in 2011. QNX is fostering the creation of open development platforms for infotainment content developers through the CAR platform as well as through participation in the Open Screen Project and use of Adobe Flash, which was recognized recently at the Adobe MAX awards.


OIPs like QNX CAR are changing the way automotive applications are being developed by providing a standardized application platform and enabling multi-discipline cooperation in an industry where most collaborations either have a limited vehicle focus or are strictly controlled within a secretive set of players, Gryc says.


"An application platform based on known standards allows each company to focus their contributions on differentiating features, which really accelerates the innovation and widens the playing field," he says.


Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member Microsoft is also raising the level of software sophistication in automotive applications through its Microsoft Auto 4.0 infotainment stack. With support for Intel architecture processors, customers now have more choice in the architecture they use with Microsoft Auto.


In his keynote at the recent Intel Developer Forum, Intel CEO Paul Otellini communicated that Harman International chose the Intel Atom processor for their next-generation IVI designs and has secured design wins with BMW and Daimler. The Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab is also working with Intel and its ecosystem to develop infotainment research platforms in prototype vehicles.


Furthermore, IVI system OEMs can take development shortcuts by starting designs with the Low-Power Intel IVI Reference Design platform with the Intel Atom Z530 + System Controller Hub US15W, congatec conga-CA COM Express module, and Xilinx Automotive Spartan-3E FPGA.


In addition to collaborating with automakers, Intel is helping electronics systems companies develop aftermarket IVI products such as Telemetria Technology's DashTop platform, scheduled for availability by the end of the first quarter next year. The customizable system acts as a Wi-Fi hot spot, offering broadband connectivity and a broad set of infotainment features including HD radio, Web conferencing, and streaming video. Built around the Atom processor, DashTop provides a flexible IVI system that is both Linux and Windows compatible.


"Because of its low power requirements, the Atom allows us to quickly extend the same architecture into both the in-dash system as well as a detachable unit for mobile uses," says Telemetria Technology CEO Allen Nejah.


Besides the infotainment capabilities, DashTop includes smart engine diagnostics that monitor vehicles in real time, enabling OEMs to collect data for design and manufacturing improvements. Coupled with safety functions including collision avoidance, lane departure warning, and driver alertness notification, these features are seamlessly connecting the car to the outside world, Nejah says.


"All the electronics within the car combined with all the location-based services for safety, security, traffic management, and more can lead to the development of a driverless car," he asserts.


In need of cost-effective silicon to help pump out multimedia-rich systems, automotive OEMs and suppliers are turning to powerful, field-upgradable technologies such as Programmable Logic Devices (PLDs). Without involving the design respins common in ASIC development, PLDs allow designers to get IVI products out the door faster for prototypes and demonstrations to OEMs, says Dave Elliott, senior marketing manager with the Industrial Business Unit at Altera, an Associate member of the Intel Embedded Alliance.


"PLDs enable a single platform design that can easily be modified to suit the needs of different vehicle classes, from mass market to luxury models," he says.


Using PLDs and FPGA-based platforms, OEMs can build IVI systems and then add features and functionality as they migrate to higher-end vehicles, Elliott says. Altera's Cyclone FPGAs are currently being used by automotive supplier Valeo in a lane departure warning system implemented in Nissan cars and by electronics equipment manufacturer Blaupunkt in a radio/navigation unit featured in Volkswagen cars, he says.


Along with Intel and Intel Embedded Alliance Associate member companies Wind River Systems and MontaVista Software, Altera is participating in the GENIVI Alliance, a cross-industry consortium striving to develop and promote an open source IVI platform. The inherent capabilities of the PLDs that Altera manufactures align with GENIVI's vision of shortening development cycles, speeding time to market, and reducing development costs, Elliott states.


While GENIVI is currently focusing on developing open source platforms for IVI devices, the consortium could possibly expand into other non-safety-critical areas of the vehicle such as dashboard units or graphical displays for complex under-the-hood technologies like those found in hybrid cars, says Alexander Kocher, Wind River's VP of automotive solutions.


Though technology hasn't advanced quite enough yet to enable the capabilities of KITT or Marty McFly's DeLorean DMC-12, the IVI systems developed using GENIVI's platform in combination with hardware, software, and silicon from Intel Embedded Alliance companies are turning vehicles into much more than a means to get from here to there.


"With navigation systems, driver assistance capabilities, and rich multimedia resources, a car is no longer just about transportation," Elliott says. "It's about a helpful and rewarding driver and passenger experience."


Knowing how much work and collaboration it takes to design these IVI systems, do you think the payoff in terms of consumer sales will be worth the effort, given the current economic state of affairs in the auto industry? Besides IVI, what other products can technology providers develop to improve vehicles? Besides vehicles, what other application areas should be targeted for the latest infotainment devices? Voice your comments, questions, and ideas with other infotainment technology enthusiasts in the embedded community.


Jennifer Hesse
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance