Advances in In-Car Automotive Electronics

Advances in In-Car Automotive Electronics

Fifty years ago, the only in-car electronics available to most motorists was a radio. How things change!

Fifty years ago, the only in-car electronics available to most motorists was a radio. In the 1950s and 1960s, radios were an option. They mostly used vacuum tubes rather than transistors, and provided crackly, low-quality music that was affected by weather, power lines and obstructions. When FM radio was introduced in 1952, the static went away, making it the choice for music broadcasting. So the hot audio setup when classic Mustangs, Camaros and GTOs were prowling the street was a combination AM/FM radio with a fade control for front and rear speakers. It seems very primitive by today’s standards.

Over the years, music broadcasting gradually migrated to FM radio because of its better signal quality. That left AM radio as the main domain for talk radio, news and sports. The limitation with radio is that somebody else chooses the music you listen to. You can change channels if you don’t like a song. But if you can’t find something else you like, your only other option is to flip the radio off — or suffer along and hope something better comes out of the speakers soon.

In 1965, automotive in-car electronics and personal choice both took a giant step forward with the introduction of 8-track players. Instead of having to listen to Top 40 tunes played by a DJ and constantly interrupted by talk and commercials, motorists could now buy songs recor­ded by their favorite musicians on 8-track cassettes and play those cassettes in their vehicles. It was a revolutionary concept and a dream come true — until the 8-track tapes jammed or broke.
The 8-track heyday didn’t last very long because they were soon replaced by cassette decks. Today, the only place you’ll find 8-tracks is at vintage car swap meets or on eBay.

The cassette decks that appeared in the 1970s were considered better than 8-tracks because they were smaller (so you could cram more of them into the glove box), held more tunes (thanks to recording on both sides of the tape), and you could even make your own by recording music off of albums (remember those?) or the radio. The only drawbacks were you couldn’t jump from one song to the next as easily as with an 8-track, you had to manually flip the cassette over to hear the other side when it reached the end of the tape, the tape could still jam or break, and dirty or worn rollers inside the player could make the music warble or drag. Other than that, they were great.

Cassettes continued as the predominant automotive audio medium through the 1980s and into the 1990s. Technical improvements included the ability to seek the next song on a tape and automatic reversing when the tape reached the end. 

The next big innovation was to get rid of tapes altogether and listen to music digitally recorded on compact discs. CDs could hold as many songs as a cassette, you could quickly jump from one song to the next with the press of a button, and there was nothing to flip over, stick or break. You just had to be careful not to scratch the soft plastic surface of the CD, otherwise it would skip or refuse to play at all.

As audio disc technology evolved, CD players were developed that could hold more than one CD at a time. This eliminated the need to eject and change CDs on long road trips. Graphic displays and colorful illumination were also added to CD players to snazz up the player interface. And as time went on, CD players gradually replaced cassette players. They have been the dominant media for automotive audio for the last decade. 

In the 1990s, a music compression technology called MP3 turned the music industry on its ear. MP3 software allowed people to “rip” tracks from CDs and compress songs into compact digital files. With the help of a CD burner in a home computer, you could burn up to 100 songs or more onto a CD that formerly could hold only 12 to 16 songs. It wasn’t long before automotive CD players that could read and play MP3 formats as well as traditional WAV music formats became available.

Initially, the MP3 phenomenon nearly destroyed the music industry by undermining its lucrative sales of audio CDs. Why buy their overpriced CDs if you could download all your favorite tunes for free from the Internet? Eventually, the music industry went after those who were involved in file sharing and downloading illegally copied music by suing their pants off. The music industry then discovered they could make just as much money as before and probably more by offering paid music downloads. File copy protection mechanisms were put in place, and a whole new industry took off like a wildfire.

MP3 also helped revolutionize the way music is stored and played by allowing files to be loaded onto a whole new generation of compact flash memory cards. The tunes could then be played back on small inexpensive portable MP3 players or even cell phones.

It wasn’t long before auto makers began offering audio systems such as Ford’s SYNC that allowed motorists to play their favorite MP3 tunes directly through their car’s audio system from Bluetooth enabled or plug-in MP3 players and cell phones. Today, “connectivity” has become an important feature that many new car buyers want.
Thanks to MP3 and smartphone interconnectivity, audio CDs will soon join the ranks of other obsolete automotive audio electronics.


In-car electronics is not just music and infotainment anymore. Electronics can also help drivers reach their destinations more easily, and with less risk of having a mishap along the way. Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, whether original equipment or aftermarket add-on, has revolutionized the way many people drive.

Real men never stop and ask for directions. Why should they if they can find where they are and where they are going with an in-car nav system? The cost of the technology has come down to where almost anybody can afford it. So if you can’t afford the overpriced factory navigation system, you can spend a couple hundred bucks on a portable aftermarket GPS unit and stick it on top of your dash or attach it to the windshield.

Factory GPS systems were first offered in the 1990s, and are now offered on a wide range of makes and models. GPS uses ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio signals from satellites orbiting the earth to triangulate the vehicle’s position. The location is then displayed on an electronic map using data stored on a CD, DVD or magnetic flash memory in the unit. Accuracy is typically 15 meters (49 feet) or less.

GPS not only keeps drivers from getting lost, it also helps you find all kinds of destinations. Many systems also offer real time traffic assistance. Touch screens are giving way to voice recognition software that accepts voice commands for hands-free inputs.

The ultimate driving assistance program is currently OnStar, which not only provides GPS navigation but also all kinds of emergency assistance.

OnStar will even summon an ambulance if it detects an air bag deployment. The system has also been used to disable stolen vehicles to avoid the dangers of a high speed police chase. 

Rear-facing DVD players that help entertain and quiet children during long trips have been a Godsend for many parents, making these devices a popular option in many late model minivans and SUVs.

Up-front, driver message centers have been integrated with navigation systems, audio systems, climate control systems, backup cameras, parking assist systems and hands-free cell phones via a single LCD display interface. Some have touchscreens while others rely on a console-mounted “smart” switch that functions like a computer mouse to make inputs. Look for this technology to spread from high-end luxury vehicles to mid-range and eventually even economy models.

Rain, snow and fog can all severely restrict nighttime visibility by causing light to reflect back into the eyes of the driver. What’s more, objects that do not reflect light well such as pedestrians in dark clothing, or animals with dark fur can be difficult to see even with good lighting, especially at higher speeds where more reaction time may be needed to avoid a collision. That’s where night vision capabilities come in handy.

According to most accident statistics, more than twice as many accidents and fatalities occur after dark rather than during daylight hours. Part of this is due to sleepy or impaired drivers, but part is also due to the reduced visibility that occurs after the sun goes down. Any technology that improves night driving visibility, therefore, improves driving safety.
The technology is a spinoff of night vision goggles developed for the military. First-generation night vision goggles relied on light amplification electronics to make dimly lit terrain appear much brighter. The limitation with light amplification technology is that it doesn’t work in total darkness.

Thermal imaging that sees heat (infrared light) has no such limitation. It can see objects in total darkness. Anything that gives off heat (people, animals, trees, cars) can be easily seen at night with a Far Infrared (FIR) thermal camera. What’s more, the view is affected less by fog and rain than technologies that rely on reflected light for night vision. FIR night vision cameras can see up to 400 meters (more than 1,300 feet) down the road, which is well beyond the range of most headlight systems. FIR night vision systems are often called “passive” night vision because they do not require any additional lighting to illuminate objects.

The main drawback with FIR night vision technology is that it’s expensive. Such systems typically add up to $2,200 or more to the cost of the options on a new vehicle.

Cadillac was the first to offer night vision as a factory option back in 2000. The Raytheon system had a grille-mounted camera and a heads-up display that produced a ghostly black and white image. GM dropped the option in 2004 due to poor sales. But in 2004, Honda reintroduced the night vision concept on the Legend with a system called Intelligent Night Vision that added an audible and visual warning when it detected a pedestrian in the road ahead.

Some additional import applications with FIR passive night vision systems include 2005 BMW 7-Series and 2006 BMW 5-Series. The night vision images produced by the BMW system are viewed on the navigation screen.

A less-expensive alternative to FIR night vision technology is that which uses a Near Infrared (NIR) camera. NIR systems are sometimes called “active” night vision systems because they rely on infrared illumination from the headlights. Next-generation NIR systems may use low power infrared lasers for illumination. NIR night vision systems don’t have the range of FIR night vision systems (150 to 200 meters versus 400 meters for FIR), but they cost only a few hundred dollars versus several thousand dollars. They also tend to produce a more realistic image displays that reveal details not detected by FIR systems (such as the edges of the road and the lines painted on the highway).

Some import vehicles with optional active night vision systems include 2002-2007 Lexus LX 470, 2002 Toyota Land Cruiser, 2005 Mercedes S-Class, 2006 Mercedes CL-Class, and 2009 Mercedes E-Class. 

Lane Departure Warning (LDW) systems are designed to reduce the risk of distracted, impaired or sleepy drivers from running off the road or drifting out of their lane and into other vehicles or obstacles. A lane departure warning system typically uses a camera and optical recognition software to identify where a vehicle is with respect to its traffic lane on a highway. The camera is usually mounted high in the windshield behind the rear view mirror so it can scan the road ahead. The software looks for lines that indicate the side of the road and/or the painted center line or lane markings on the road. It then monitors where the vehicle is with respect to the edge of the road and/or lane markings, and warns the driver if the vehicle deviates from its intended course.

If the vehicle starts to wander or drift to one side or the other, or the vehicle changes lanes without the driver using the turn signal indicator, it sounds an audible and visual warning. Until you get used to this feature, it can be rather annoying. But the intention is to make people better drivers.

Cars that can actually steer and drive themselves are still in the R&D phase a this point in time, though the technology is not that far off. Autonomous vehicles have already proven themselves of being capable of successfully navigation both on and off-road obstacle courses. For now, adaptive cruise controls that use radar distance sensors to maintain vehicle spacing as well as speed is as close as car makers are to cars that drive themselves.

The newest innovation in safety is collision mitigation braking. With this technology, sensors and cameras detect obstacles in the road ahead. If the driver fails to react to an approaching obstacle, the system gives an audible and visual warning to alert the driver. If the driver still does not react (because he or she is too busy text messaging on their cell phone, or is intoxicated or is asleep at the wheel), the system takes over and automatically applies the brakes to slow the vehicle. Such systems have been offered on the 2006 Acura RL, and the 2007 and up Mercedes S-Class and CLS-Class models, which Mercedes calls “PRE-SAFE” braking. For 2009, Mercedes also offers it on their E-Class models.

These first generation systems do not stop the vehicle completely, but next generation systems do. The 2010 Volvo XC60 has a system that will bring the vehicle to a complete halt at speeds up to about 10 mph. Called “City Safety” braking, it uses an infrared laser camera mounted behind the windshield to monitor the road ahead. The same camera is also used for adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

Eventually, more and more vehicles will be equipped with some type of automatic braking, and eventually with systems that may even take over steering control to prevent an accident. And someday, we’ll be able to get in a car, tell it where we want to go, then sit back and enjoy a movie or surf the internet while we travel from A to B. Hopefully, such systems will have redundant backups and failsafes — just like the backseat drivers we have today who keep us on the ball.

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