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by Jim Bennett (January 17, 2000)

Pre Show Impressions
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Automotive
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Ford Motor Company's Visteon subsidiary gave me a special look at their ICES (Information, Communication, Entertainment, Safety)computer platform. The system is based on the Windows CE operating system and has undergone extensive modifications by Visteon to help achieve automotive quality levels. Voice recognition is at the heart of the system and limits the variety of voice commands to access and control information, navigation and in-car audio to a finite number.

According to Craig Muhlhauser, Visteon's president, "Professionals, salespeople, fleet operations and road warriors would be among the first [people] to use ICES."

Also, the Wireless Interface Modular System (WIMS) interfaces with the ICES, for enhanced vehicle operation. Ford's rear seat entertainment system, launched at the 1999 CES, is growing rapidly with DVD programming and a variety of Nintendo games help keep children happy.

By year-end, MP3 compressed audio files will be available under its newly introduced Flexible Audio System. This OEM system can hold custom-made play lists on a single CD with the equivalent playtime of ten conventional CDs.

Satellite radio receivers were displayed and would also be available on 2001 models. Digital quality programming will be available from up to 100 channels for a $10 monthly digital subscription fee from two new companies, XM Satellite Radio Inc. and Sirius Satellite Radio.

Delphi Automotive Systems, formerly a General Motors division, was demonstrating its CommuniPort line of computers and multimedia systems. Their products ranged from the straight forward communications of hands free cell phones, to more complex navigation systems (GPS) with DVD monitors for passengers and computer games for the kids.

According to company sources, business has been good. Since mid 1998, revenues have dramatically grown from around $1 million to "booked revenues" of $2.5 billion through 2005. However, reliability and lead time issues need to be resolved before new OEM vehicles will be equipped with the new technology.

The automotive aftermarket, equipment installed after the OEM manufacturing process, may provide a quicker path to adoption and near term revenue, but it also has some major challenges as well.

Microsoft and Clarion Corporation blazed a trail in 1998, with their launch of the Auto PC at CES. At Bill Gates first public Auto PC demo, based on the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, it did not work very well during that nationwide broadcast. That wasn't a good demo period for Bill. It has also stumbled in the marketplace, after much hype and some refinements.

Briefly, the Auto PC is an in dash computer that controls standard AM/FM/CD functions. The built-in voice recognition system is designed to control (with speak to and speak back capabilities) the various internal systems like radio, CD, climate control, communications and optional GPS navigation.

Based on various retail assessments and consumer interviews, I have determined that while the base Auto PC retails for below $1500, the addition of installation, GPS navigation and other questionable accessories can quickly make to cost balloon to over $5000. That's not a good performance/price ratio in my book. Finally, a customer has to take a leap of faith that the retailer can properly install, troubleshoot and maintain the system.

The second generation Auto PC shown at CES 2000 has a slightly larger LCD screen, a moving GPS mini-map and DVD support. It still does not address many of the Auto PC's fundamental problems. Its competitor's units are more prevalent for good reasons.

On the positive side, automotive OEMs and their partners are making efforts to develop sustainable standards for both hardware and software platforms so new features can be easily added. Sources also advise better integration needs to be achieved so electronic upgrades can be scalable in a timely basis.

CES 2000 showcased the IDB or ITS Data Bus that provides standards, common hardware, software protocols for a reliable, simplified upgrade path at reasonable cost. The IDB Forum recently completed the cellular phone and navigation standard in the IDB-C specification. We should start seeing products coming to market in late 2000 or 2001.

The IDB-C stands for control area network or CAN, which isolates the system from the vehicle's primary electronics such as engine, steering and braking systems. Safety, reliability, product liability and customer satisfaction are among the paramount issues. Unproven and crash prone systems will have to meet automotive and governmental standards before mass adoption can even start.

Motorola demonstrated their newly prototype iRadio will eventually establish connectivity between vehicles. It uses the technology of Web based data, cell phone information, standard radio broadcasts and even satellite transmissions. Further developments are expected later in the year.

Motorola's Talkabout T6100 series is just as attractive and useful today as the original many years ago. Excellent designs have staying power. The new series features 14 channels, 38 codes, stopwatch, alarm, clock and timer. It has an improved shock, dust and water resistant high impact plastic case.

In the cell phone department, Motorola's new V8160 offers limited Internet access and can send short messages to other phones. Prices range between $400 to $600.

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Copyright 2000 Jim Bennett All rights reserved.

   
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