Why Intel and BMW should develop an in-car computer

Interesting | January 4th, 2009 by 20

I know many of you might find this idea crazy, but allow me to share with you my thoughts on an Intel/BMW partnership in bringing …

I know many of you might find this idea crazy, but allow me to share with you my thoughts on an Intel/BMW partnership in bringing a full operational personal computer to our bimmers. First things first though, many of you might know by now that my background and academics were and are always intersecting with computers, technology, engineering in one word. I have been surrounded by “machines” most of my life and I live and breath technology.

So, the other day, going down the list of the advanced technology available in the new BMW 7 Series, the idea of having a personal computer on board the 7er became very appealing. One of the reasons is the discussion that I had at the L.A Auto Show with the BMW 7 Series Product Manager. His words on how many BMW customers see the new 7 Series as a limousine, where the interior comfort and usability needs to satisfy even their most demanding needs – those words – are stuck in my head. 

Of course, the new BMW 7 Series comes with a powerful and multi-functional entertaining system, but it’s missing the basic features of a personal computer or laptop. The mini-computer or notebook would ideally feature a touchscreen along with a laptop-style keyboard that will serve as an input device and mouse. Before we get into the functionalities and the need of a such in-car computer, who are the key players in this market, as far as providing a stable, energy efficient and high-computing platform?

Well, we have Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) , one of the companies that used to be my first choice as the CPU in a personal computer, and of course, Intel, the giant microprocessors company. Owning a few Intel computers in the past years and presently, including Home PCs, laptops and Tablet PCs, I find them to be the most suitable for this job. 

Their latest generation Core 2 Duo or the even newer and most performant CPU on the market, I7 (wiki) are the best option when it comes to mobile computing, due to their small footprint and sophistacated power management, very important things when it comes to a small size in-car entertainment system.

So, moving away from the technical aspects, the next question arises:

What is the purpose and why the need of an in-car mini-laptop or personal computer? 

Imagine this scenario: a fleet of 2009 BMW 7 Series is used in a limousine company that serves high-profile customers, people that always need to be connected to the Web or in-touch with other people. Also, there are many people out there that don’t drive their own BMW, but rather have a chauffeur at their service 24/7 – yes, I know, who wouldn’t want to drive the 7er?

Well, these customers  are in need of a personal computer at all time, regardless if they are flying, driving or taking a boat ride. The in-car computer could be used for Web browsing, emails, files and documents editing, video conferencing or simply, to be entertained during long trips. This could also apply to families with children that are taking long trips during the year and where a DVD-entertaining system might not suffice. 

And if the above points are not enough to convince you of the usefulness of an in-car laptop, then think about this: a wireless Sync service that will automatically or manually replicate and sync the files between your office or home computer and the BMW vehicle. This way, every single file you are working on, could be sent to the car and have access to it instantly. A feature that I will love to have while my significant other drives me from home to work in the “famous” Chicago rush hour. Yes, I know, being an workaholic is nothing to be proud of. 

Playing devil’s advocate here, some might argue that laptops and Smartphones would be enough to accomplish the above tasks. Sure, they could, but what would we find to be more comfortable and easy to use? Packing, unpacking the laptop, starting and shutting down your computer, buying an in-car power adapter and using a broadband card for internet access, OR….. the simple push of a button and the in-car computer is ready to roll and crunch tasks for us.

Smartphones, sure, great devices, love writing email on them, but absolutely useless for other tasks. The smaller screen size, computing speed and slower internet access are a turn off for any heavy technology user.

And the most important argument, BMW has already developed an advanced in-car entertainment system, ConnectedDrive, which could perform web browsing or can send and receive emails. But is that enough for our high-profile person mentioned above? Or the children looking for extensive entertainment?

The in-car laptop will use the fast 3G or EVDO networks from the cell phone providers. Intel’s newest platforms have built-in broadband capabilities that play nice with all the cellphone carriers. 

Of course, safety is an issue and the in-car computer will be available to passengers seating in the rear seats, where the mini computer will fit in perfectly, especially in the new 7 Series interior design. 

Pricing is a factor that cannot be neglected, but in my opinion, the price of an in-car computer could be the same, if not lower, than a regular iDrive Navigation system. 

I am anticipating the next question, why Intel? Because it was the first company that in 2001 mentioned the possibility of creating an in-car computer that will provide basic communication and navigation to full-on Internet-based entertainment and commerce systems. At that time, SUVs and minivans were the perfect candidates. 

This tell us that Intel had a vision that mobile computing will become extremely popular and will play an important role in our life. Two visionary companies, BMW and Intel, could really make this happen and change the way we interact with our cars and how we use them. 

P.S Disclaimer: I love Intel products and of course BMW, in case I didn’t make it obvious enough.

20 responses to “Why Intel and BMW should develop an in-car computer”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Apple and BMW maybe? Apple uses Intel chips :P BMWs support iPhones and Apple has been known to develop in car systems for Audi I believe. Don’t quote me on that, but Apple and BMW would be a nice partnership :) Maybe bring the App store to the BMW? The possibilities are endless really.

  2. Horatiu B. says:

    @Anonymous: Well, Apple is a computer manufacturer and own an operation system, so their computers will still be working with an Intel platform.

    But yes, the possibilities are endless and many things could be accomplished

  3. Gil says:

    *sigh* freakin’ technology…. love ’em, hate ’em… LOL. I live and breath computers in civilian life AND military life (look at this, 02:53 and I’m logged on, god forbid). Take the computers away dammit!!! LOL.

  4. Auday says:

    That’s the last kind of customers I would like BMW to cater for. What’s next? A printer, fax machine, home theatre, fridge, coffee maker, and maybe even an auto pilot so the driver could enjoy all those things without having to worry about driving?
    BMW was always advertized as “Drivers” cars, even the 7 series. The 7 used to be looked at as the choice of a CEO or a business man who needs a big luxurious car but still needs to be behind the wheel and enjoy every day driving.

    Regardless of that, and with the risk of going a bit off topic, I don’t think Intel is the right way to go. Intel processors are the most advanced in terms of processor clock (the high frequency their chips can reach, which also means lots of heating and power consumption), but the worst when it comes to processor architecture. The x86 (from the 8086 of the 70s to the Core Duo of today) has a very complicated design with over 70% overhead just to keep it backward compatible with all generation Intel. For a portable in car machine you need a light, agile and efficient processor, and the best candidate for that IMO is IBM’s PowerPC or even better the Cell Architecture (used in PS3). As for the OS, a solid system that provides less features but more reliability is a must, so Windows is out and IMO even OSX (Mac OS) is not suitable. The iPhone OS is pretty solid and Apple will most probably expand the iPhone/iPodTouch to be a standard for multiple uses including tablets and smaller portables.

    BTW, Japanese cars like Honda and Lexus have touch screens for their onboard computers years ago, and their systems are better and more user friendly, so BMW needs to catch up first.

  5. Gord says:

    Doesn’t BMW Sauber (bascially BMW F1 team) have a parternship or sponsorship deal with intel ?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I do agree that Intel has quite a bit of overhead to account for backwards compatibility, and PowerPC/Cell architecture would be a better for embedded systems. The reason I said Apple was not for putting OS X in car, but was for Apple’s focus on end user experience which is matched by BMW’s focus on end user experience. Their system might be based on OS X, like the iPhone OS (which you dub as being more solid than OS X? umm read the news man, there have been crashes with many applications running on the iPhone OS and lots of initial problems with iPhone OS 2.0. They only fixed just about all of them relatively recently with 2.2, while OS X has been “solid” since 10.2 from 2003 IMO)

    Either way, whichever operating system you choose to put on the in car computer, it should have an API for developers to create apps for it. Every aspect of the system should be preferably customizable (like Google Android’s platform).

    I disagree with the touch screen as it’s bad for colder climates (I live in Canada :P) and it’s a usability issue (I find that I need to bend over to touch the screen, or the screen is too close to me if I don’t have to bend over when I should be focusing on the road instead of the computer). Just because something is touch screen doesn’t make it more user friendly :P

    I believe BMW is going in the right direction with the new iDrive and the way it’s used. I haven’t used it myself, but it looks very nice and user friendly. The next step would be to open that up to developers, then I’d be I heaven :) Nice post Horatiu, it’s been a good discussion.

  7. Horatiu B. says:

    @Auday: Don’t be surprised to see the mobile computing taking over our cars in the near future. That’s where we’re all heading. The car will become more than just a transportation medium.

  8. Horatiu B. says:

    @Anonymous: I agree with you, an API would definitely open the door for some cool applications that could take the whole car-passenger interaction to a whole new level.

    @Auday, not sure if I agree with the IBM Power PC being used as a mobile platform, but I do see the PS3 arhitecture being more suitable.

    Don’t disregard Intel though, when it comes to mobile computing, they have come a long way and their latest platforms were impressive, without getting into the GHZ war game.

    Now as far as us buying cars for the driving experience, totally agree with that statement, but you cannot disregard the other 5% that buy the 7 series for example as a work car with a driver.

    That’s why, the in-car PC should be offered as an option, not standard, and a decent price. I’ll bet you any money that more people will order it.

  9. Doug says:

    Very interesting article and thread.

    I’m not sure that the hardware (or hardware vendor) is much of an issue, because they all have a wide range of power consumption and possible form factors. This is assuming that the general-purpose chips is what you want, because 1) they tend to be far less efficient for many specific computation-intensive tasks, and 2) they tend to require more software development to implement those specific tasks, meaning more bugs and idiosyncrasies. How awful would it be to have a windows or iphone-style OS and need constant updates, or have to live with shoddy software released with the assumption of fixing it later?

    Actually Horatiu, I would go with AMD because of the upcoming Fusion platform (2010?) which has a cell-like architecture of CPU and general-purpose computation units. This reduces the form factor and power requirements for general-purpose computers that require accelerated computation like video decoding, video processing for pedestrian detection and so forth. If they want to go that way.

    Ultimately though, I think that it would be a dubious decision for car companies to release something with so much potential for problems; it would be unsupportable, and a potential safety hazard. However, despite saying that, I’d love to have the internet accessible that I depend on 24×7 there with me and not have to fumble with my blackberry and/or blackjack to get at it. If I can customize and extend it, I’m all for that — unless it gets me killed.

  10. Horatiu B. says:

    @Doug: Yes, from time to time I do come up with interesting articles :))

    So, why do you say it will be not supportable and a safety hazard?

  11. Doug says:

    @Horatiu B.:
    Well, because there will be a temptation to implement a myriad of features, which requires tons of coding, and/or porting of existing applications. All of this means bugs, software updates, and use scenarios which could never be conceived by the designers, nor tested for. You’d need a vast support network similiar to that for computers, operating systems, software or cell phones. The only way to reduce those use cases is to very tightly design the OS, the user interface and any APIs, much moreso than you’d want for a “pc in the car”.

    The smartphone is a good example of a “PC” replacing a single-purpose device. I’ve had a number of MS smartphones (mpx200, mpx220, i617) and they’ve all aggravated the me with bugs, fundamental design issues, software compatibility problems, inexplicable behavior, etc.

    For example, I got the i617 for it’s ability to run 3rd party apps and be customizable. I got the carrier’s GPS software. It was also a client-based application, where it would submit the GPS coordinates and the server would return maps, voice instructions, traffic, etc. However, given the innacuracy of the GPS, the delay in server requests and the GPRS coverage in some areas, the software was an utter failure. The end result was incorrect and inaccurate directions. I later got the Garmin XT software which is fantastic, but mainly because its performance wasn’t undermined by assumptions about the myriad of scenarios.

    The former software gave me such bad and late instructions that I damaged my car avoiding an accident (at night, in the rain, in heavy traffic) because it thought I was pointing in completely the wrong direction at an intersection. Then there was the screensaver problem. It was just too complicated a platform for such a critical application, and sapped up my attention.

    I just can’t see using PC-style applications in a car, they unfortunately require the attention that you need for the road. Especially if it’s from Microsoft !

  12. Horatiu B. says:

    @Doug: An in-car PC could use a stripped down version of Windows, MAC OS or even Linux. That way, many of the issues can be avoided. But the idea will be that the computer will be supported under the 4 yr manufacturer warranty and at an extra cost afterward.

    And like I said Doug, the computer will be available for those sitting in the back and it will resemble a regular laptop.

  13. Doug says:

    @Horatiu B.:
    Ohhh for the passengers…… sorry I keep missing key things. Stop putting key facts right in my blind spot, horatiu! :)

  14. Horatiu B. says:

    @Doug: :) So, take it from there. What’s your opinion now?

  15. Doug says:

    @Horatiu B.:
    Alright… you know the idea reminds me of those computer-ish panels they have in planes now, letting you pick news, VOD, news, weather, etc. And you have video for long trips. And rear passengers can queue up music.

    It makes far more sense if the passenger is the person of import, like a limousine or business scenario. The videoconferencing idea is a good one, and syncing/accessing materials where you’re in a discussion. I can’t picture doing much PC-specific work though, wouldn’t they just opt for a laptop? So it would have to be a very lean general purpose convenience tool.

    For the technology side, would this be a shared computer, or individual units in the dash or seatbacks? If they were in the seatbacks like current 7-9″ LCDs then the compact/low power SOC-type computers make a lot of sense. You could even have a web client for a laptop to access your car WLAN if necessary.

    There’s actually a lot of cool possibilities with this. Imagine passengers finding points of interest via google and adding waypoints to the GPS. Your idea is probably inevitable :)

  16. Horatiu B. says:

    @Doug: Think of a mini-laptop that slides out. Something along the line of a 12″ Thinkpad. Even a Netbook should be ok. So that should be very useful to do any work, and many other things.

    There would be two of them, one in the back of each chair.

    And yes, my idea will be implemented :) Now if I could only get Intel to see this article :))))

  17. Doug says:

    @Horatiu B.:
    You mean, sort of like an airline tray folds down and slides out? Or just the keyboard?

    I was reading an article from 2003 last night about some guy who put a computer in his E46. He was using wireless keyboard and mouse (gyration), which looked pretty practical.

    Maybe you should patent it and submit it to car LCD makers under NDA :). They have the sales channels and computer-capable suppliers.

    The video conferencing would be sweet, although I think prior art was established in Night Rider episodes. The possibilities are endless though— like videoconferencing with the kids in the back to stop fighting, or with the cop tailing you at 130mph, or recording everybody’s expression in an accident situation.

  18. Horatiu B. says:

    @Doug: Seeing the current trend at CES and so many devices being shown in cars, I have a feeling within 5 years or even sooner, we will something like this.

    Can’t wait to come back and revive this thread :)

    Btw, I contacted Intel to see if they would like to comment on the article and ask them what would be the biggest obstacle in designing something like this, but we have been ignored so far.

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