In-car BMW prototype could lead to PCs in cars

I was at a meeting yesterday in Munich where carmaker BMW discussed how the car industry needed a standard platform for in-car IT.

Along with the computers that monitor the sensors and safety systems, cars are getting Internet access; they have GPS-based navigation and car radios have become in-car entertainment systems with DVD players, CD players, DAB radios and iPod connections.

Graham Smethurst, who works as the programme lead at BMW for its car IT collaboration project with Intel and is general manager of BMW’s infotainment division presented the case. He said motorists were increasingly looking to connect mobile devices into their cars. However, while in the mobile industry, devices are churned out very quickly, cars take several years from design to the day they appear on a forecourt. This means that a car designed for mobile devices of 2008, probably won’t be much good in terms of connectivity when it goes on sale in 2013, because the mobile device industry would have moved on. What’s fashionable today – say the iPhone, is unlikely to be de rigueur in five years’ time.

So BMW has worked with Intel to develop a prototype in-car computer system, based around Intel’s Atom processor, which is capable of running PC applications on top of a standard software stack.

If the car industry adopted this platform Smethurst believes software companies would see the benefit of creating in-car application. For instance, the in-car navigation system could provide an add-on that told the motorist where the nearest petrol station was, or the cheapest price for petrol on his journey.

It sounds a bit like the start of the PC industry, when IBM and Microsoft created a standard hardware and software platform for software applications. It took just one killer application, the Visicalc spreadsheet, to seal the fate of the PC, paving the way to the ubiquitous workhorse it is today. Let’s hope the car industry can agree on a standard, because if it is does, someone will inevitably develop a killer application, that could benefit us all.

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