5/30/2004 | 5 MINUTE READ

Telematics for the People

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Falling electronics and software costs and new approaches promise to move navigation systems out of the realm of pricey gadget and into mainstream use faster than you might think.


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Navigation systems are slowly becoming more than just novelty playthings for the affluent. After all, how much more solidly middle-class can you get than the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, both of which have navigation options? But the price for having those clever little electronic maps built into your dash is still far too high for true volume sales to take off. Which leads us to ask: why are navigation systems so expensive and what is being done to make them cheaper? Mike Antrim, executive account manager, Mitsubishi Electric Automotive America, Inc. (MEAA; whose parent company has been making navigation systems since 1991) says most of the cost, as you might expect, is tied up in the sophisticated electronics hardware. He reckons that the navigation engine alone, which includes the high-powered microprocessor and memory modules needed to calculate routes, makes up about 40% of total system cost. The in-dash color display, which many in automotive electronics identify as still prohibitively expensive for wide-scale application, he pegs at 10-15%. Rounding out the big-hitters is the DVD unit needed for reading map discs at about 20% of overall cost. Currently, these components help to push navigation prices well above $1000/unit, but Antrim projects that over the next five years costs for all three will drop by at least 30%, bringing system costs down to $500/unit. "That's the price where a sales avalanche will occur," he says.

A lot of that reduction will come from the relentless improvements in the surface-mounted ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) chips, such as the decoder integrated circuits that control how map data is retrieved from DVDs (and constitute a large part of the DVD unit's cost). But some will come from greater integration and economies of scale. Right now, each OEM's nav system is largely unique, but the push is on to integrate navigation into sound system head units, which would allow suppliers to standardize components over high volumes and bring prices down.

On the software development side, cost-cutting through standardization is also becoming more prevalent. While each OEM wants a unique customer interface, they don't much care how the underlying route calculation algorithms are written, as long as they work. So, MEAA has designed a software package called "Victoria" that allows it to use the same basic calculation code across all of its customers (which include DaimlerChrysler, Volvo and Mitsubishi), while allowing each to develop unique interfaces. To help reduce development time for the OEMs, Antrim explains that Victoria is both more object-oriented and more modular than traditional packages, (it also runs on a standard Windows operating system), allowing engineers to "drag-and-drop" a lot of their code writing. Antrim estimates that Victoria can reduce development time by 67%, and that hardware and software savings combined will put built-in navigation units in "every vehicle except entry-level within 7 to 8 years."

Nav by Radio. If you don't want to wait that long for affordable navigation, iBiquity Digital Corp. (Columbia, MD) is currently launching an approach you might call "navigation lite." Using the spectrum space between analog radio signals, iBiquity equips local radio stations to broadcast digital signals containing real-time traffic information which is decoded by an aftermarket head unit in the vehicle. The system does without a DVD unit, a large screen or a satellite antenna, so hardware costs are kept low. In fact, according to Joe D'Angelo, vice president, data services, the only significant cost increase over a standard head unit is a proprietary digital signal decoder chipset that sells for less than $40. Of course, iBiquity doesn't offer the amenities of a high-cost system like voice activation or turn-by-turn directions. But D'Angelo argues that the chief concern of a lot of the drivers in the 50 biggest U.S. metro areas where the service will eventually be available is avoiding congestion and backups during daily commutes; and iBiquity's 50 kilobit per station data pipeline is more than enough to broadcast the details of every traffic slowdown in a major metropolitan area. Two types of head units will be available (Delphi, Visteon and Panasonic are all building models): one with a narrow screen that will only display text messages; and one with a larger screen that will show a color route map with congestion areas marked by warning symbols.

Cellular Navigation. But the cheapest and fastest way to bring navigation to the multitudes may be by bypassing built-in systems altogether and working through cell phones and PDAs. Thanks in part to a federal law designed to ensure that "911" callers can be easily located, all new mobile communication devices will have built-in GPS chips that can be tracked via satellite. And while that may conjure visions of Big Brother to some, it provides the necessary prerequisite for "location-based services" like navigation. Taking advantage of this potentially huge market, Motorola has developed a Java-based software package called "Viamoto" that allows users to download real-time turn-by-turn directions to a mobile device. The Viamoto server that delivers the map data stores it in a format that optimizes access speed, so that even at the low bandwidth capacity of cellular networks, directions can be transmitted quickly. Although Motorola is a major handset maker, it designed Viamoto to work with any of its competitors' units by coding its distributed software components using the standard Internet protocols TCP/IP; UDP/IP; http and XML. Lee Callaway, director of product marketing for location solutions, says of the open architecture approach, "We want to see the mass of consumers having a navigation experience." To that end Motorola is using Viamoto to power the cell phone-based nav system dubbed "Avis Assist" which has been rolled out to 57 Avis rental car locations across the U.S. Callaway says Avis expects take rates of 10–20%, which means thousands of people who have never used navigation before will in the next few years. Add to that all of the Nextel customers who sign up for the recently launched $10/month Viamoto service, and it becomes clear that by the time built-in nav systems prices reach "avalanche" levels, a sizable number of people will have been getting nav by phone for years. Which may only serve to enhance the penetration of built-in systems as people realize they like having navigation, but want more features than they can get on a tiny phone display.