Twenty years ago, the high end in automotive electronics
involved strapping a booster EQ under your dash, having four full range speakers, and a CB
radio. Many people who dabbled in car electronics back then are amazed, even befuddled by
what is available today. Technology has not only brought high fidelity audio to rival the
home, but advanced electronics in the form of mobile navigation systems, cellular and DCS,
encrypted two way communication, and high tech security/convenience systems to protect it
At the 2000 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, one of the big
products was mobile video and mobile multimedia. We can expect to see quite a lot of this
in the future. Many technologies first developed for the home and for professional studio
uses are finding their way into cars.
One of the first things you can expect to see are more mobile
video items. While 12 Volt DC, TV and VHS Players have been around for a few years now,
they have been chunky, inefficient, and unwieldy. The flat LCD displays allowed television
equipment to be moved into the front seat without massive alteration of the dash, and saw
their first usage in GPS navigation systems. However, many people quickly discovered how
to interface the LCD screens with the video outputs of their VHS players. VHS players,
however, are bulky, and may never fit into a DIN opening in your typical automobile. An
alternative, however, is mobile DVD. DVD has already had a healthy start in the retail
home media sector, and DVD CD-ROMs are already inexpensively available. The advantage to
DVD is that the information is stored on the already familiar 5" silver discs as CD
Audio, which means with a few hardware and software upgrades, any automotive CD player
manufacturer can put out a DVD capable unit. This offers an advantage to listeners whether
they use the video output or not: DVD uses a more advanced digital encoding system which
contains information for 5.1 Channel Audio. 5.1 Channel Audio refers to your four
independent speakers (and that means a different sound could come from each of the four
speakers around you, as opposed to current four channel technology where the rear speakers
are putting out the same as the front speakers), a center channel up front, and the .1
channel is an independent subwoofer output. With the addition of that output, bass can be
controlled independently of the rest of the audio signal, so that both audio and sub bass
effects can be added for richer explosions, and better psychoacoustic sense.
Compute While You Drive
Probably the most significant new product is the Clarion AutoPC.
Clarion debuted this unit at the 1998 Consumer Electronics Show, but never put it into
production. Constant upgrades, and software refinements of the custom version of Microsoft
Windows CE (CE for Compact Edition, the operating system designed by Microsoft for small
pocket computers and PDA's) kept the unit off the shelves until 1999. Clarion had long
been working towards refinements in mobile media, and the AutoPC is the current state of
the art. The Clarion AutoPC fits in a DIN slot, and uses a Pentium II processor to do
everything from play your CD's to call phone numbers on command. Using voice activation,
you can dictate memo's, read, receive, and send e-mail. You can also get traffic reports,
custom news read to you, and even surf the net. The AutoPC also handles cellular protocol
to enable it's communications, or you could simply ask it to call someone so you can speak
to them. The AutoPC will also communicate with your PDA through an infrared linkup to
exchange data, contact info, and 'to-do' lists. The AutoPC will also communicate with
other devices using USB and Firewire data links.
Clarion is not alone in this. A number of enthusiasts have
dismantled lap tops, and even desktop PC's to put them in the car. A number of other
companies are also vying for this market. Delco Electronics has already gotten together
with Sun Microsystems (Microsoft's sworn enemy in the O/S market) to produce a mobile
computer to rival the AutoPC. Using Java for it's operating system, and utilizing a high
bandwidth satellite link, this offering promises to be even more versatile than Clarions
AutoPC. However, because it uses the DSS satellite linkup for it's data, expect a limited
distribution to only North America.
The Universal Serial Bus in Your Car
USB, or Universal Serial Bus is a new computer interconnect design
and architecture which allows numerous devices to be daisy chained. They are addressed
much the same way servers on the internet are addressed, allowing lots of devices to be
interfaced on the same bus at the same time. The new iMac utilized USB for nearly every
connection, and most peripherals are being developed in USB formats. What this means for
your car is that in the future, installing an alarm could be as simple as plugging a
module into your cars USB port, and hiding it. Every device from your ECM, to your air
conditioning could communicate. Since everything would be digital, RCA cables would be
outed, and amplifiers will start having built in DACs.
More Power Scotty
Every car electrical system is 12 volt right? Well, you would
think so, but in fact, most cars run at 14 volts today (go ahead, take your meter and put
it on your battery). At differing times in the history of the automobile, different
voltages have been used. Many large industrial and military vehicles use 24 volt systems.
Installing 12 volt equipment is not usually a problem, since 24 volt systems often use 2
12 volt car batteries in series, but a skilled installer can build a voltage regulator.
But higher voltages are not always the problem. Many older vehicles have at times used 6
volt batteries. While it is fairly easy to step down voltages, there are often
difficulties in stepping up voltage. This may not factor in as a problem, however. With
the advent of new technologies, tighter environmental regulations, and the dawn of
electric vehicles, your next car may be a 36 or 48 volt system. Electric cars need the
higher voltages to provide the oomph to get up and go. 12 volt systems may not meet the
demands of extended power draw that batteries are going to see in the new generation of
electric/gas hybrid engines for automobiles.
A new dilemma is one which is already being addressed. Grounding.
Most vehicles are what is called "negative ground" or "negative
earth". This means that the - terminal of the battery is connected to the metal
chassis of the vehicle. At times, some manufacturers (like MG) have used + ground systems.
While there is no discernable advantage/disadvantage either way, + ground vehicles pose a
problem for installers in that almost all car electronics are - ground. This can be quite
a shocking experience to find out about the hard way. But the big clincher is that many
cars will not be grounded or earthed at all. With the increasing use of composites in
automobiles, it will become increasingly difficult to ground an amplifier. As installers
have done for Corvettes and DeLoreans for years, both + and - leads will have to be run
from the battery.
MP3 on the Go
With the increase in popularity of MPEG Layer 3 audio encoding for
making high fidelity music available via the internet, it's no suprise that in-car MP3
players are big news. Underdevelopment now, the EMPEG
player will offer hours of MP3 audio in a in dash unit. This will have more in common with
a computer than a cd head unit though, with a Pentium II processor and the Linux operating
system, look for this unit to quickly outgrow it's role as simply a player.