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Advances in auto infotainment systems

Posted: 18 Mar 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:infotainment system  GPS  digital audio broadcasting  MOST  SerDes 

In the connected car, the head unit, or the infotainment system, will be the crucial 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 analogue 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 colour 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 realised as separate hardware blocks that use specific software. Examples of this include analogue AM/FM radio, digital audio broadcasting (DAB) radio, analogue/digital TV, navigation, and digital satellite reception (figure 1).

Figure 1: The current infotainment approach uses dedicated hardware connected with a dedicated interface technology.

Separate hardware and software components are employed for each reception system, which increases the costs and space requirements and lengthens the development periods. It also restricts new design flexibility.

Different regional standards increase the complexity, and with that usually comes greater cost. New designs must remove redundancies; they must coordinate and integrate whatever different versions are required for different countries. Meanwhile, the possibilities for providing software updates to keep pace with changing requirements are very limited. There are high power-consumption requirements to meet. The heat that arises from increased package density creates additional problems. Beyond that, the efforts required to integrate systems and ensure the simple reusability of functional blocks are also a challenge.

New generation of receiver modules
There is a new design approach that resolves these requirements. A new generation of receiver modules is based on Maxim's RF to Bits architecture and the first DAB/FM tuner (the MAX2173) is already available.

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