Storage and the connected car

7th August 2014
Nat Bowers

Automotive storage always used to refer to how much boot space a car had, or whether there was a sizeable glove box and sunglasses holder. Today, automotive storage is also used to refer to the amount of digital storage space a car contains – and as more and more of our work and entertainment are delivered digitally, the importance of digital storage increases. By Boris Hafner, Senior Manager, Automotive Sales, Toshiba Electronics Europe.

More than 28 million automotive specific HDDs have been sold by Toshiba alone since 1996 and over time, the capacity of those drives has steadily increased. The use of NAND-based solid-state storage devices is also increasing and as the cost per gigabyte decreases the use of this technology will also increase. The birth of automotive storage can be traced back to the mid-90s and the adoption of built-in car navigation systems in high-end cars. The mapping data was initially stored on optical drives, but updating the data proved difficult as discs needed to be changed by a mechanic during a car service as access to the drives would usually involve removing the dashboard.

It was quickly recognised that hard disc drives (HDDs) would prove a more elegant solution as data could be updated much more easily via a physical data connection. However, the challenge was greater than simply installing a standard laptop HDD. HDDs installed in cars need to accommodate a wide range of environmental conditions, such as temperature, humidity, air pressures and also need to withstand constant vibrations and shocks that a desktop or laptop HDD would not normally encounter. The drives need to operate across a wider operating temperature range - normally from -30 to +85°C compared to the +5 to +55°C operating temperature range specified for consumer devices. There are also other design challenges in developing HDDs for automotive use, as they need to have increased durability, longer life times and car manufacturers need to be convinced of their long-term availability.

In 2005, the first Toshiba 20GB OEM HDDs were implemented in Europe, by a premium German car manufacturer, where the challenges for navigation are quite different than in comparison to Japan. In Japan, the streets have no name, so navigation is accomplished by visual orientation and location - with even early-generation satellite navigation systems requiring up to 10GB of 3D mapping data. The advent of 3D maps and demand for sophisticated graphics has driven the demand for larger and more robust HDDs over time. And it’s not just demand for up-to-date maps that car manufacturers have had to contend with during the 10-15 year life of a car; the discrete navigation systems from manufacturers such as Garmin and TomTom have also driven a desire for improved graphics and increased functionality. To keep abreast of these changes, the software and mapping data both need to be updated periodically, leading car manufacturers to specify in-car HDDs with greater capacities than would initially be required so they can accommodate future upgrades.

Connecting cars

According to market analysts iSuppli, by 2016, more than 55m people will have internet access built into their vehicles. However, despite the increasing prevalence of 3G and 4G data networks, mobile internet connections are not always stable and can vary in speed dramatically. This will make cloud storage for the automotive sector an impractical solution for at least the next 3 to 6 years and will drive demand for in-car storage and increased capacities. Many car manufacturers see this as an opportunity to turn the car into a key hub of our increasingly networked lives. Not only will a car provide the navigation and entertainment functions currently expected such as rear-seat entertainment and downloading of apps, they will also host applications that will automatically open the gates to your drive, adjust the thermostat and check internal security systems. This will lead to an explosion in demand for higher capacity drives.

To meet demand for increased capacity automotive drives, Toshiba recently launched the world’s highest capacity automotive HDD, a 320GB drive able to operate in temperatures ranging from -30 to +85°C. This provides ample room for 40GB or more of navigation data, which in some cases is mirrored for security reasons, as well as providing plenty of space for multimedia files and the growing number of automotive apps. While HDDs have become the storage media of choice in Europe, in Japan and Asia the story is very different, where capacity needs are lower. The Japanese car manufacturers tend to specify around 40-100GB of storage, and for these capacities NAND flash based solutions such as SD cards are preferred.

As the price premium for NAND flash based storage compared to HDDs decreases, the demand for automotive NAND increases. NAND flash based systems are smaller, lighter, have lower power consumption and have fewer components than HDDs. They also have no moving parts so have greater shock and vibration resistance. Current car infotainment systems can be divided into three classes - entry level, mid-range and high-end. Entry-level and mid-range car infotainment systems tend to include 4-32GB of storage, and this is now usually NAND flash-based storage. In the entry-level segment many car manufacturers have started implementing removable storage options that allow SD cards and USB pen drives to be plugged into the car head/unit and provide upgradeable storage. This has the advantage that owners provide their own storage, which does not need to be ‘fully-compliant’ with automotive standards, as it is removable.

In the higher capacity mid-range offerings, 60-128GB automotive-class NAND-based solid-state drives (SSDs) and eMMC are expected to start being implemented. SD cards are also likely to find a home in this segment. SSDs with capacities of 60-100GB are likely to start appearing in cars within the next one or two years. The current automotive HDD capacity entry point is at 100GB, although this is predicted to change as the automotive industry moves towards a more PC/smartphone –like experience. Higher capacity automotive HDDs of 200-300GB are already becoming more popular in the high end of the car infotainment systems.

The cars of the future

Consumers are increasingly demanding the same capabilities and interfaces from their car as they get from their smart phone and tablet and at the same time these devices should be integrated and linked to the car network. There are many ways that manufacturers are rising to this challenge, some are creating discrete systems with smartphone-like interfaces, while others are providing platforms that extend the screen from the smartphone to the car.

Apple and Google both have collaborations with the automotive industry to provide the same user experience inside and outside the car. With more people buying cars for the experience and not the horsepower, collaborations such as these are causing a fundamental shift in the way the automotive industry operates. Traditional product qualification processes take at least two years before components and software are specified in cars. With the rate of change in the smartphone industry, such timelines no longer meet customer expectations for automotive infotainment systems and therefore modular and more flexible car infotainment systems are expected to be introduced in the near future. This shift will drive the medium-term future of the automotive industry and will have a significant impact on the automotive storage industry.

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