An oddly named system that enables electronic devices to talk to each other without wires soon may be standard on autos. It is called Bluetooth, named after the 10th-century Danish king Harald Bluetooth II.
It is a standard that permits microchip radios in such devices to communicate with each other at distances up to 30 feet. This would end the need for docking stations to link a personal digital assistant, mobile phone or other devices to a car's audio system. It would lower the cost of telematics and infotainment because those devices would not have to be physically linked to mobile phones. And it would speed the introduction of new electronic products.
'There's a revolution coming in portable computing and communication,' says Robert Schumacher, director of Delphi's Mobile MultiMedia business line. 'Customers are going to be able to talk to anybody they want to, get to any information, any entertainment, surf the Web, no matter where they are, no matter what time it is.'
In effect, Bluetooth is a kind of electronic Esperanto. These devices can chat with each other regardless of brand, type, manufacturer or operating system. This will make it easier to download audio or video from the Internet to the car's entertainment system. It will speed the introduction of e-mail service or continuous updates on traffic conditions.
Any company can license Bluetooth at no cost from the consortium that introduced it. Consortium members include cell phone giants Ericsson and Nokia, along with IBM, Intel and Toshiba. Nearly 1,200 companies already have signed licensing agreements. Analysts predict more than 100 million devices will contain Bluetooth chips by 2002. Not surprisingly, given its genesis, Bluetooth will penetrate the cell phone market first. That is expected to increase demand for other Bluetooth-enabled products and reduce the cost of the chips.
In six months or so, the next generation of cell phones will have Bluetooth modules. Motorola already has developed an add-on module for automakers, said John Hansen, director of marketing for Motorola's Transportation Systems Group in Austin, Texas. 'We're getting a lot of requests from the automotive customers to provide Bluetooth,' Hansen said. 'The way they put it, the well-dressed car is going to have Bluetooth. So we're providing a module because they need a solution now.'
It allows automakers to use Bluetooth today without having to develop an infrastructure. The module can be used, for example, to link a cordless headset with a cellular telephone for hands-free calling in the vehicle. When mobile phones and personal computers start to feature Bluetooth, the price of the technology should drop dramatically, says Harry Asher, a senior engineer with Siemens' Driver Information Systems unit. 'Everybody's talking about a $5 target for these devices, but it's more like $30 now, and that's too high for a lot of applications. By the time it gets to the consumer, it's a lot more than $30.' Asher predicts cost should decline to the target price as early as 2004.
But engineers acknowledge that Bluetooth must demonstrate its reliability. One major question is whether information transmitted via Bluetooth will be secure from electronic eavesdroppers. 'We want to make sure it's a safe technology, not something anyone could hack into,' says Ford spokeswoman Fara Warner. 'You don't want other people reading your mail or unlocking your car for you.'
If security and cost can be resolved, automakers could disconnect the motorist's telematics equipment from the actual design of the cockpit. That would dramatically speed the introduction of new technology. Vehicle design takes from two to four years, while consumer electronics equipment can be designed in six months. A Bluetooth-enabled vehicle would be able to talk immediately to the newest devices as long as they were Bluetooth.
Delphi's Schumacher says Bluetooth can help automakers to promote four growing technologies: the Internet, wireless communications, multimedia and personal computers. This market is growing 30 percent to 40 percent a year, he says. 'There isn't a sport-utility or minivan in the next couple of years that won't offer rear-seat audio and video as an option.'
Bluetooth's voice-activated features are particularly attractive at a time of growing concern about driver distraction caused by display screens, hand-held portable electronics and other paraphernalia. 'It always has to be simple and easy to use,' says Ford's Warner. 'If it isn't, the information would have to be accessible only when the car is in park.' That could be a key issue: Drivers have little patience for technology that slows them down.
You can e-mail free-lance writer Jeff Mortimer at [email protected]