Auto Infotainment — Driving the Course for Connectivity

February 20, 2014 // By Henri W. Weller, Frank Berkner, Werner Bauerschmidt
In the connected car, the head unit - formerly called infotainment system - will be the pivotal point. While this system has evolved a long way from our father's car radio, next-generation head units will be rather different. The article sketches a few basic development lines of future infotainment systems.

Evolution of Auto Infotainment

Over the past few decades, in-car infotainment capabilities have evolved continuously. It all began with simple audio systems adapted to meet the needs of the motor-vehicle environment. Later other services were added, such as Germany's " Autofahrer-Rundfunk-Informationssystem" (Car Driver's Radio Information System) for receiving traffic announcements from radio stations in the mid-1970s. That was followed in 1998 by the Radio Data System (RDS), later complemented by Traffic Message Channel (TMC), which made it possible to transmit traffic data right into the car.

These services were implemented through analog radio broadcasting, so all of the functions were contained in the car radio. In the 1990s, however, the emergence of navigation systems (GPS) augmented the functionality offered by a conventional car radio. This marked the start of a new era for automotive infotainment. Now GPS required additional IT-based data processing, more technical capabilities for evaluating the GPS signals, and input from other sensors to calculate the vehicle's exact position. To operate the GPS system and deliver information, the user interface had to be expanded. More system enhancements were needed, including sophisticated display units offering higher information densities, and high-resolution color displays and input units with advanced controls, such as rotary-push knobs. Later systems operated with the aid of touch screens, voice control, and gesture control.

New Designs Bring New Challenges

These sophisticated user interfaces made it possible to integrate other functions that were formerly not available as independent units, such as on-board computers, telephony, vehicle-specific configurations and, of course, a multitude of multimedia applications.

We begin by examining radio reception in the vehicle. The traditional AM/FM radio has turned into an infotainment system. The various transmission standards developed over the years frequently employ a very heterogeneous structure. Individual functions are often realized as separate hardware blocks that use specific software. Examples of this include analog AM/FM radio, digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio, analog/digital TV, navigation, and digital

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