Analog Angle Article

The car rear seat as a home away from home?

We've come a very long way since Galvin Manufacturing Corporation—which became better-known as Motorola—pioneered the basic AM car radio back in the 1930s. Though this seems like a trivial accomplishment to us, it was a major technical advance: Radios by necessity used large, relatively fragile vacuum tubes (and they needed high-voltage DC and thus inverters and rectifiers), and all associated components were also large and dissipated a lot of heat.

Flash forward to the 21st century and today's car is a multimedia center on wheels, and it isn't going to slow down, either. A report from iSuppli predicts significant growth in rear-seat electronics with the next five years (“Car Rear Seat Entertainment Shipments Set to Nearly Double by 2015”). Even if you view such predictive, crystal-ball reports with some skepticism—as I do—it's fairly clear that the market will significant growth, even if it doesn't actually double.

I guess this is good news. These systems will devour a lot of electronic components, ranging from analog ICs, to processors, to low-level network interface ICs. And from the car-maker perspective, not only will this raise the selling price and profits on the cars, it's very unlikely that problems (if any) with these systems will trigger a safety-related recall (sure, there could be some subtle power-rail short-circuit problem, but the system fusing will likely take care of it).

But there's a perspective which worries me. When these systems have their failures, as some inevitable will, will it be worth getting them fixed? Will you be OK without a car for a few days, while your rear-seat screen is replaced? After a few years, will we see lots of cars with defunct or marginal entertainment systems on the road, but providing otherwise good, solid transportation? Will car manufacturers design these systems for access, or will it take many hours of frustrating labor to remove and replace the modules and units? Will the failure of a $1 IC or passive component trigger the need to replace a $1000 module, as the lowest field-replaceable unit? Will technically inclined owners scrounge junkyards for replacement modules that can be made to “work” in their car? Will it be easier to live in your car, with all these added amenities?

What are the big-picture and small-scale implications of these entertainment electronics in cars, both for the electronics industry and for vehicle owners? Hey, your guess is as good as mine. So, as the once-popular phrase went (and it was not so long ago that it was a popular phrase): “stay tuned.” ♦

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