Analog Angle Article

Are cars headed in the wrong direction?

I recently saw an announcement for an auto-specific multimedia controller, the MB88395 from Fujitsu Microelectronics ( “Fujitsu auto controller delivers in-vehicle HD video”). This IC meets the 1394 auto-networking specification and is designed to deliver high-definition video, and much more, in vehicle multimedia networks.

I'm sure the folks at Fujitsu see this as a sales opportunity and would not have developed this IC without talking to potential customers, who apparently see a need for full-scale rear-seat entertainment systems. But still, the whole idea makes me somewhat uncomfortable, for both practical and philosophical reasons.

First, on the practical side, all of this has to add substantially to the design cost, production cost, and overall sustainability cost and headaches of the vehicle. What happens in a few years when the car runs fine, but this entertainment system has problems and it costs thousands to get repaired, assuming you can get replacement parts? Or will you have to go to an aftermarket “form, fit, functional” replacement unit that isn't quite the same, and therefore has installation, interface, compatibility, and operational issues?

And how much does all this “stuff” add to the cost of having any work done on the car, as the mechanic (what a misnomer that may become) has to move and be careful of those extra circuit boards, boxes, and connectors, even as use of 1394-enabled cars reduces cabling?

But my concerns go beyond the practical and mundane. If we make our cars more like our homes, with many of the features of home, how will that change our relationship with both home and vehicle? They are very different kinds of assets, each with different ownership mindset and maintenance/upgrade postures. Is it good that our cars become more like homes on wheels, or does it distort the mental framework we use to classify and ive with/in each? What happens when we lose sight of the primary function of the car, which is to get us reliably and predictably from point A to point B?

On one hand, our industry sees more electronics in cars as a source of serious revenue. Certainly, there are lots of ways that electronics can improve the performance, fuel economy, reliability, and safety of the vehicle. (Even some of these features and enhancements have arguable benefit, but that's another discussion.)

But when we start adding all these less-essential frills, I wonder if our industry is losing sight of where the real value-add should be, and setting the stage for some very unhappy car owners as their expensive, feature-laden cars start to have problems and additional maintenance headaches in the future.

And to the automakers, I'd remind them that losing sight of your product's primary function is another step towards having the wrong performance and functional priorities, and soon getting those priorities in the wrong order. In other words, the extra-function tale starts wagging the primary-role dog.

But I suppose if people want to spend their money on these sorts of extras, who are we to tell them “no, that's a bad idea, don't do it.”–as long as they don't expect us to bail them out when they can no longer afford their payments or upkeep! ♦

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