Can Intel revolutionise in-car technology?

While attending Intel’s European Research and Innovation conference in Barcelona, I came across some interesting tech that could finally see in-car technology realise its potential.

The problem with in-car infotainment systems is that most car manufacturers just see it as a way to make easy money – they charge a fortune of out-of-date technology, knowing that many buyers (especially luxury car buyers) don’t want after market solutions. The result is that very expensive cars ship with navigation, communication and entertainment solutions that are years behind the technology that’s probably in your pocket right now.

But Intel is developing a solution that could ensure that your car is equipped with cutting edge technology, even if the car itself is a few years old. Not only that, the prototype that Intel showed me today has all the advantages of a user-upgradable open platform, while ensuring that system critical functionality can never be compromised by the user downloading anything malicious.

The system that Intel has come up with is powered by a dual-core CPU - most likely this will be based on Clover Trail when production ready boxes start to ship. One of the CPU cores is assigned solely to the closed infotainment system – ensuring that critical features like navigation and communication will always work (hopefully). The second core runs Android in a sandbox, allowing the user to download pretty much anything they like without fear of it affecting the primary functionality of the system.

By having a fully open Android environment running, your passengers could be browsing the web, playing Angry Birds or even watching movies while you’re driving. This could be particularly useful if you have children – with a couple of screens in the seatbacks they could be kept entertained on even the longest journeys.

Even though the infotainment part of the system is locked down, it could, in theory, still download firmware updates over the air. This means that the car manufacturer could update the system with new functionality remotely, keeping the system up to date, and keeping the customer happy.

However, Intel also told me that the system is designed to be hardware upgradable too. Obviously not end user upgradable, but the idea is that when Intel develops a new SoC platform, the car could be returned to the dealer and upgraded to the new platform. That said, even if this hardware upgradability comes to fruition, automobile manufacturers may make the upgrade price prohibitive – after all, just upgrading the maps on most factory fitted navigation systems costs hundreds of Pounds.

Of course this system is simply a prototype at the moment, but Intel is in talks with both BMW and Daimler with regard to in-car technology solutions. Even so, given the excessively long lead times that car manufacturers work to, it may be a while before you see a car equipped with Intel’s little black box at your local showroom.