Supporting the Infotainment Superhighway

According to Toshiba, the market leader in automotive hard drives, on-board data storage will move from novelty item to necessary hardware within two product cycles.

According to Toshiba, the market leader in automotive hard drives, on-board data storage will move from novelty item to necessary hardware within two product cycles. Says Scott Wright, product manager, Storage Div., Toshiba America Information Systems (Irvine, CA; “You can download all of the things you have on your separate consumer electronic devices, get rid of the warranty-prone optical disc drives [CD and DVD] currently in place, and have a centralized storage medium that helps drive down the cost of this technology.”

Though automotive-spec. hard drives don’t take up much room and currently can hold up to 40 gigabytes of information, they are significantly more expensive than their PC-based counterparts. “Mobile PC-grade drives cost $50 to $75, whereas automotive-grade units cost $80 to $120,” says Wright. Though the automotive hard drives start with head and media technology from the PC world, the electronics are upgraded to operate reliably from -30°C to 85°C, and casings and filters are modified to allow for wide variations in temperature, humidity, and altitude.

Wright points to work carried out by the Coral Consortium (—a cross-industry group working to create a common framework for digital rights management technologies—who is working to bring various types of streaming data into vehicles. If this happens, passengers could subscribe to different push media—like RSS feeds, gaming sites, etc.—requiring significant on-board data storage. Some manufacturers are even looking at multiple hard drives to handle all of the data smoothly. “From a system architecture point, a centralized hard drive is the favorite,” says Wright, “though certain types of vehicles—like those with rear-seat entertainment systems—might have a separate hard drive to handle the capacity needs because of the way video is handled.” In this scenario, he says, it’s possible the vehicle also would also have a hard drive for a high-feature navigation system, and another for the in-car audio system. A look at the data requirements shows that navigation systems require 4–15 GB of storage space, digital music storage (up to 5,000 songs) takes another 4–20 GB, high-definition digital video adds 10 GB, video games require anywhere from 1–20 GB of hard drive space, and audio books add another 1 GB to the mix. All of this adds up to at least 80 GB on board. In addition, the interface is likely to change as well. For decades computers have used a parallel ATA interface (PATA), but the computing world is in the process of switching to the faster serial ATA, or SATA, interface, though it probably won’t make the transition to automotive until the 2012 model year. “SATA supports different voltages in the interface and reduces the number of signal lines that have to be supported,” says Wright. “So you run at a higher clock speed and over serial transmission lines more like a network.” Because the electronics can be integrated more simply, which reduces the space taken up on the printed circuit by the interface electronics, costs will drop over time while performance rises—at least once automotive circuitry is engineered to handle this.

OEMs also are interested in using the hard drive as a storage medium for diagnostic trace data, a running log of the vehicle’s status, and for software backup and upgrades. “The hard drive in this scenario,” says Wright, “becomes a content and applications store on a backup basis, or a way to upgrade the systems on the car. Though I doubt we’ll move to using it as one big processing brain within the vehicle anytime soon, even though the technology is there to do that.”

But what of flash drives, the storage media putting the most pressure on hard drives in handheld devices? Do they have a future in automotive? With a current operating range of 0?C to 70?C, they would have a tough time surviving in the harsh interior environment. More importantly, magnetic data storage has an 8x to 10x advantage in price per gigabyte. Says Wright, “Automotive flash drives will probably get to 16 gigabytes of storage capacity on a reasonable time horizon, but—since we are talking about aggregating a lot of information in most of these applications—it would be the lower-priced, less well-equipped vehicles that would, counterintuitively, make use of the smaller capacity but more expensive flash drive.”