Only the beginning: hard drives in cars

There's already been a silent technology explosion in automobiles over the last ten years. Command and control has become largely a computerized affair. With high and low speed data buses throughout the automobile, your car is basically a network. It used to be that you'd press the power window switch and current would flow to a motor, or it would trigger a relay. It was simple to execute in the design and manufacturing stages, and troubleshooting was a matter of time spent with a test light and a meter. Modern cars use protocols like CAN, or Controller Area Network, to facilitate the liberal smattering of increased functionality we all desire in our vehicles. Press that same window switch now, and a message is sent to the central processor that you desire a change in the window status. The central processor then alerts the window motor to energize in the proper direction, and then it's off to the races for the glass. Sounds overly complex at first blush, doesn't it?

The old way had some drawbacks that the new systems hopefully alleviate. Firstly, there were lots of potential failure points with analog control systems. Also, components had to be wired to each other for functionality, and that required lots of wire. Wire is expensive (checked the price of copper lately?), and it adds weight and takes up space. Networking protocols allow automakers to integrate functions as never before – check out the way the MazdaSpeed 3 dials down its power output depending on steering angle – while using less wire and having a system that's more reliable. These changes have gone on virtually unknown to most motorists, but the cool stuff is just around the bend.

[Source: Automotive Design Line]

We're on the cusp of an in-car entertainment bonanza. Navigation systems were just the beginning, and of course now we've got video systems to calm restless back-seat natives. In just the last couple years we've seen Harman International's MyGig system introduce a 20-gigabyte hard drive to the automotive entertainment experience in Chrysler vehicles. Chrysler continues to expand its media offerings with satellite (how appropriate) television in the new minivans, and Ford's got Sync on their minds. As we add music libraries, sophisicated and self-aware navigation systems, telemetry, and whatever else we can dream up to vehicles, the future looks bright for the automotive-grade hard drive.

Hard drives, even those cleared for automotive use and able to withstand shock loads of 200-plus times the force of gravity, are one of the most inexpensive ways to cram lots of information, functionality, and content into a not so large space. The hard disks that are intended for automotive use would smack silly the little $70 Maxtor you get at Staples. Those cheapie drives may win out in bit count, but they'd never stand for the temperature extremes and vibration of an automotive environment. Flash memory is a contender in some applications, but for bulk storage, spinning platters still trump a fistful of solid state gates. Hard drives will be enhanced by advances in flash memory speed and capacity. Caches will grow and take on new functions, and it remains to be seen how hybrid drives will be implemented in embedded systems. Even as solid state memory improves, hard drives have been getting mind-blowingly small, while offering equally mind-blowing data capacity.

Automotive hard drive manufacturers like Toshiba have been at it for a long time, and they've developed hard drives that can laugh off temperatures from -30 to 85 degrees Celsius. Capacity will continue to grow past the current size of approximately 40 gigabytes, and having onboard hard drives will become commonplace. A single hard drive that integrates with the telemetry, navigation, entertainment, and other systems in the car would centralize those systems and stands a good chance of being more reliable than an optical disk transport like a DVD.

Of course, the telemetry angle is what has us worried. Yes, nifty 3-D graphics for the nav system would be marvellous. Storing all our favorite songs and syncing playlists with our home PC is slick. But adding more memory for the "black box" to snitch on you strikes at the heart of the tiny libertarian we harbor inside our souls. Of course, the benefits of having plenty of memory to store performance data might make diagnosing problems easier. Manufacturers could download long-term data sets from cars every time they came in for service, tracking trends and increasing their ability to keep your car happy for many thousands of miles, as well as pointing up areas that need improvement.

We're holding out for a manufacturer to build the ultimate video blogger car. Right now, it'd be something like a Honda Element with an SATA RAID in the glove compartment, and a hotrod multi-core non-linear edit system hiding out. The headrest screens would suffice as a dual monitor rig in a pinch. Now, where to stick that HDCAM SR mastering deck?

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