Mobile Media
The Coming Changes in Automotive High Fidelity Entertainment

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 all.

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.

New Media

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.


by: Andrew Krause