Why Your Car Needs A Hard Drive

Nearly two decades after expanding the personal computer's possibilities, the hard-disk drive may be on the verge of launching another technical upheaval.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 24, 2004

6 Min Read

CHICAGO — Nearly two decades after expanding the personal computer's possibilities, the hard-disk drive may be on the verge of launching another technical upheaval. This time, however, the disruption looms not on the desktop but on the dashboard.

Automakers, seeking to meet growing consumer demand for audio, video and on-board navigation, are gearing up for a big change in the way data is stored and retrieved in cars. With hard drives, they expect to offer consumers the ability to create and store in-vehicle libraries containing the equivalent of 200 CDs' worth of music, a hundred videogames and 60 movies. Moreover, the drives could prove the medium of choice for storing map databases, especially for navigation systems offering fast-changing, birds-eye imagery.

"More and more people have MP3 players and iPods, and so there is a strong consumer desire to store large volumes of files onboard vehicles," said Anand Ramamoorthy, director of systems solutions for the Automotive Business Unit at Renesas Technology America Inc. (San Jose, Calif.). "The large OEMs are looking for a cost-effective strategy to meet that need."

The buzz around automotive hard drives has grown so steady that some analysts and observers believe all of the 17 million new vehicles sold in North America each year could be equipped with disk drives within a decade. International Data Corp. predicts that automotive hard drive use will climb from 520,000 units in 2003 to 5.69 million units — and $381 million in revenues — in 2008.

"It's coming up on us very, very quickly," said Robert Schumacher, director of mobile multimedia for Delphi Automotive Systems (Kokomo, Ind.), a leading supplier of automotive electronics. "Eventually, every navigation system and every radio will have a hard drive."

Indeed, in some quarters, the trend has already begun. This fall, General Motors Corp. is rolling out hard drive storage, built by PhatNoise Inc. (Los Angeles), on four of its crossover sport vans. Each of the vehicles will offer a wallet-sized, 40-Gbyte hard drive cartridge that mounts in the overhead entertainment system and stores up to 10,000 songs and 40 movies.

Analysts said the trend is sufficiently strong to make even the industry's most skeptical engineers look long and hard at the technology. But concerns linger over the hard drive's reputation for fragility. Desktop PCs, after all, don't drive down highways and hit potholes at 65 mph. Nor do they deal with the outdoor temperature extremes of Nogales, Ariz., and International Falls, Minn.

Some automakers are examining how the technology might affect their brand image. "The last thing they want is to have cars in the shop all the time, getting hard-disk drives replaced," said David Reinsel, program director for storage research at International Data Corp.

To allay such concerns, a consortium of manufacturers intends to develop a standard for a lightweight, compact, removable hard-disk drive that could be used in automobiles. Drivers could bring the iVDR (for information versatile disk for removable usage) indoors with them after parking their vehicles.

"It would mitigate exposure to temperature extremes, data management problems and theft issues by virtue of the fact that it could be popped out and carried in a shirt pocket or purse at any time," IDC's Reinsel said of the platform envisioned by the consortium (www.ivdr.org).

Tough enough for travel

Disk drive engineers learned important lessons about toughening up their products during the past 15 years, as laptops proliferated and drives evolved to suit them. "Since the advent of the laptop, hard drives have gone through a lot of refinement to become more durable for portable environments," said John Osterhout, director of consumer electronics marketing for Hitachi Global Storage Technologies Inc. (San Jose). "Before then, we never had to address shock, vibration and environmental issues."

The ruggedized drives models that have long been used in police vehicles have also held lessons for engineers of drives for broader applications.

Hitachi and fellow drive manufacturers Toshiba Storage Device Division, Seagate Technology Inc. and Fujitsu Computer Products of America are working hard these days to address the shock, vibration and temperature challenges for in-car disk drives.

One common method of coping with the ruggedness challenge is to use a 2.5-inch, 80-Gbyte drive but utilize only 50 percent of it. Limiting the usable disk area, engineers say, improves the drive's shock and vibration characteristics.

Equally important is the engineering effort to stretch the temperature range of disk drives from their desktop level of 0°C to 55°C to an automotive-grade - 20°C to 85°C. Achieving that broader range involves a migration from the more conventional, ball-bearing-style electric drive motors to one using fluidic bearings.

The key, say engineers, is the use of a fluid that won't get overly viscous at low temperatures but won't vaporize at the extremely high temperatures. To meet that need, engineers at Hitachi have combined an ester-based fluid with an electric motor drive shaft having a slightly smaller diameter than conventional motors. The shaft, which measures 2.5 mm in diameter rather than the usual 3 mm, can be driven more easily (with less torque) when temperatures drop to - 20°C and the fluid in the bearing grows more viscous.

"Finding a fluid that won't vaporize or get too thick requires a very fine balance," said Bill Heybruck, an engineering specialist for consumer electronics at Hitachi.

With such drives in hand, however, leading automotive suppliers and system integrators have begun launching disk-drive-based products for automakers. Such companies as Panasonic, Sony, Pioneer, Sanyo, Delphi and Denso are working with automakers on aftermarket products, and Delphi and Visteon are talking with OEMs about factory-installed hard drives.

PhatNoise, for its part, has jumped into the fray as a systems integrator, providing drive-based technologies complete with processors, as well as in-house-designed operating systems, codecs, vehicle interfaces and even PC software for downloading music and videos to the hard drive. The company's most recent system for GM, for example, employs a 300-MHz MIPS processor core and an embedded operating system built atop the Linux 2.4 kernel. PhatNoise has also worked with Volkswagen, Audi and Mazda on hard drive-based storage systems.

PhatNoise executives said their recent efforts with automakers have taken them beyond the point of offering a replacement for the CD changer, which is the way the company started five years ago.

"Once you put a hard drive in a car, you open up a whole class of applications," said Dannie Lau, executive vice president for PhatNoise. "You can store audio, video and videogames. You can store maps for navigation and even do multizone entertainment in the vehicle."

Although automotive hard-disk drive technology has seen much of its initial use in navigation systems for Japanese vehicles, its big growth area will be in entertainment applications, especially in North America, industry observers believe.

"Entertainment constantly moves up," said Schumacher of Delphi. "It has moved up from AM to FM to FM stereo to cassettes, CDs and DVDs. And, eventually, it's going to move up to hard drives."

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights