3/15/2000 | 5 MINUTE READ


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A group of five technology companies thinks it has the perfect solution to make the vehicles of the future "Internet-ready." And they're willing to give it up for free.


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Remember the first Walkman? Its implicit ethos of portability created our current world where people lug around electronic gear in every pocket of their clothing: cell phone, pager, stereo (cassette, CD, or MP3), computer, Palm Pilot, etc. This cornucopia of portable electronic gadgetry will get more complicated as electronics companies develop portable "Internet-appliances" that rely on wireless connections to the Internet. Car companies obviously want to cash in on this next wave of Internet-enabled electronics (think smart navigation systems, traffic information broadcast to the dashboard, in-vehicle e-mail, remote diagnostics, etc.). But the big problem is how? Docking an industrial-grade laptop computer in the trunk is a less-than elegant solution. GM's On*Star system, which necessitates a dedicated cellular service, is both expensive and inflexible, as the dedicated phone can only be used to call On*Star operators, who act as a middleman between driver and information.

Even hard wiring a cell phone into a vehicle for hands-free communication has gone over with consumers about as well as Corinthian leather.

A fundamental question that many people may ask is, "If I already have portable devices (in fact, too many portable devices) that can do what I want without investing in yet another phone, computer, organizer, etc., why should I buy yet another device that's tied to my vehicle?"

The Bluetooth answer: "Don't."

Blue What?

Scandinavian wireless telecommunications giants Ericsson and Nokia have teamed up with IBM, Intel and Toshiba to create a wireless communications standard called "Bluetooth" that could radically change the consumer electronics market. Not only does Bluetooth have the potential to make mobile electronics a whole lot simpler (thereby making them more useful), but it could also solve the problem that has long kept high-tech consumer electronics out of cars—long development times. "Automotive is one of our critical industries," explains Skip Bryan, director of technology market development for Ericsson, the original developer of the Bluetooth standard.

Consider this Bluetooth scenario for hands-free telecommunications: Get in the car, throw your phone in the backseat and make calls through the voice recorder in the headliner of the vehicle. Johnson Controls is currently showing a version of this concept; the phone and the voice recorder are both Bluetooth compliant. The phone uses the microphone and speaker of the voice recorder to simulate a hard-wired, hands-free setup.

The automotive potential of Bluetooth gets even better. Rather than having to dock a laptop in the trunk to enable Internet access, a Web-enabled phone could be used to display content on a screen in the vehicle, with the vehicle essentially acting as a "dumb terminal." Or a computer in a briefcase can use a cell phone in a pocket to connect to the Internet, then display the information on the same screen. Similarly, MP3 files could be played through a car's built-in sound system that's communicating with a portable MP3 player in a backpack. The point is that building a lot of redundant electronics into the car becomes unnecessary, and the portable gear that people already have and know how to use can function in the vehicle without the hassle of cables, proprietary interfaces or hacker-like skills.

But How?

"Bluetooth" is a specification for small form factor, low-cost, short-range radio links between mobile PCs, phones and other electronic devices. To use the specification, a company has to sign a no-cost license agreement in which it promises (among other things) not to create proprietary iterations of the technology. Ericsson plans to start selling the first Bluetooth-equipped phones this summer.

The core of Bluetooth technology is a microchip radio capable of securely transmitting both voice and data in real time within a universally available frequency band. (This chip is actually the real Achilles heel of Bluetooth. Right now, the technology is still employing a rather expensive two-chip system that costs about $30. However, Ericsson sources claim that within about three years, a one-chip system will be perfected and cost only $5.) Data can be transmitted by Bluetooth as fast as 721 kb/sec., or almost 13 times faster than a typical modem. Communications can be one-to-one or broadcast to up to seven devices. This is ideal for replacing cable connections between devices, like Palm Pilots and laptop computers. But it also means that sharing data among a group becomes truly possible. For example, a group of Palm- and laptop-toting colleagues could each send their electronic business card to all the others, instantly and without cables.

But Bluetooth's greatest benefit comes from its ability to form new, previously impossible networks, especially between portable and stationary devices. For example, when Ericsson's Bluetooth phone debuts, it will be able to function as a landline phone, cellular phone, and walkie-talkie. When the phone is used in the house, it sends the signal through the phone base that's plugged into the wall. Outside of the house, the phone works on a cellular network. But when a call is placed to a Bluetooth compliant phone that's within range, the signal is just sent directly to the other phone. The best part is that the switch between functions happens transparently, without user intervention. This is because Bluetooth devices are constantly looking for other Bluetooth devices. How they interact once they find each other is up to the software, and particular to the device.


If Bluetooth becomes the success that Bryan and others think it could be, it could also help reduce the problems associated with the long automotive product development times. As long as a Bluetooth-equipped vehicle can be designed with flexible hardware for a display, a sound input and output, and an interface, the software can be developed and updated to work with whatever new electronic gizmo hits the market. Conversely, this model would allow anyone to build devices that could interact with the vehicle, since Bluetooth is a free standard. Of course, given the usual attitude of OEMs regarding proprietary vs. non-proprietary standards, maybe we can all just look forward to having that computer in the trunk.


Why Bluetooth?

Harald Bluetooth was an 8th century Viking king who, at the height of his power, ruled over much of Scandinavia. Credited with building a network of fortresses and bridges, he was also responsible for spreading Christianity throughout Denmark.





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