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Portable Electronics Threaten Embedded Electronics

The automotive electronics industry is wise to keep an eye on what’s happening with portable electronics. While portable radios and later portable cassette and CD players didn’t end up hurting the market for factory-installed audio products, the portable cell phone has all but wiped out the market for embedded cell-phone handsets. Now other portable electronics, including navigation devices, satellite radios, digital media players and DVD players and monitors, are threatening the OE market for embedded electronics.

Just as the U.S. market for embedded navigation devices may finally be moving into the growth stage with 3 percent penetration of new U.S. vehicles in 2003 potentially climbing to 10 percent penetration by 2008, according to digital map-maker Navteq, a number of promising portable navigation products have emerged that will compete head on with embedded devices. For example, Garmin International of Olathe, Kansas, recently introduced a pocket-sized portable car navigation device that retails for just $599 — half the price new car buyers pay for factory-installed navigation. The device, which includes a rechargeable 20-hour lithium-ion battery, 2.2- by 1.5-in. color display and voice directions, can be moved from car to car or brought along while navigating on foot. It is accurate to within three meters 95 percent of the time.

One way to benefit from the incursion of portable devices into the automotive realm is to join in on the action. That’s what Motorola’s automotive division has done with its Viamoto software, which turns portable cell phones into navigation devices. Last year, Avis Rent A Car Systems began using Viamoto software installed on Motorola i88s cell phones to provide voice-enabled directions to Avis customers, who pay an extra $9.95 per day rental fee. Rather than requiring each phone to carry large amounts of data and computing power, an up-to-date map data file is kept at the Avis Advisor call center, where a server creates the directions and downloads them to the phone. A big advantage of portable navigation devices is that they can be used both inside and outside the vehicle.

In yet another portable application, Motorola, with its partner Giant International, will soon unveil the palm-sized XM2GO XM Satellite Radio receiver. With a built-in antenna, the radio can be enjoyed at home, in the car or on the go. The world’s first portable satellite receiver was introduced by automotive electronics giant Delphi Corp. The Delphi XM SkyFi receiver, including car kit to access the car’s audio system, is available from megaretailer Wal-Mart for just $119.64.

Competition for embedded products will also come from portable digital media players. The most successful of these is the iPod from Apple Computer. Two million iPods were shipped in the third quarter of 2004 alone, a 500 percent jump over the year-ago quarter. Costing just $399, the 6.2 ounce, palm-sized 40-GB iPod can hold 10,000 songs, more than enough memory for an entire record collection. While some carmakers in Japan have begun factory installing hard–disc drives that handle both map data and music files, the enthusiasm for iPod will most certainly dampen the demand for embedded HDDs to store music. Many iPod users will surely prefer to bring their iPods into the vehicle rather than going through the hassle of downloading music to the vehicle.

The best things about portable electronics are that they are usually more up-to-date, cost less and can be used in and out of the car. But portability has its disadvantages, for example, the need to conserve battery power limits computing power. And the human machine interface is limited by size — switches and the display must be tiny. In contrast, embedded electronics can take advantage of larger displays, provide easier-to-find switches and support greater power consumption. As a result, embedded electronics can be smarter and safer to use while driving. The auto industry should exploit these advantages to come up with embedded electronics that are more appealing than portable electronics, or at least provide electronics features that easily accommodate the safe use of portable devices in the car.

Paul Hansen is a strategy consultant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He publishes The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics, a business and technology newsletter.

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