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Ready for the car 2.0? Nvidia preps UPGRADABLE car system

'K.I.T.T., you try something like that again, I'll put sugar in your gas tank'

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What’s your next car dashboard going to look like? The answer may well be: however you want it to look. If Nvidia has its way, car manufacturers and owners will have a much wider range of choices when it comes to dashboard displays, navigation sophistication, and personalising the car to the owner.

The computer hardware foundation is Nvidia’s Visual Computing Module (VCM), a small computer on a card with a Tegra processor, RAM, and solid state memory. This module is the brain of the car-to-user interface: it manages the instrument cluster, entertainment system, climate control, communications, and navigation tasks - all with fondle-happy touchscreen navigation.

If Nvidia’s VCM catches on, it could give rise to a new wrinkle in the auto market: an upgrade path. In the past, cool new features were introduced to the motoring public in new models every year or two. Sure, you could upgrade the entertainment and navigation features with aftermarket products, but installing a fully integrated solution can be an expensive proposition. Many drivers take the cheap route by using their smartphones or other devices for directions or entertainment storage.

According to Dave Anderson, Nvidia’s Automotive Applications Manager, Nvidia is planning to keep the same packaging (including the pinout) for successive VCMs, so they’d have socket compatibility from generation to generation. Improvements could include more memory, more processing power, and new features/functions that the faster hardware would enable.

In the accompanying video, Dave shows us a board and walks us through three different takes on the dashboard of the future. The first is their current reference design; we see the range of functionality and how the user would interact with the system. It was an advanced implementation of today’s state-of-the-art, but nothing truly earth-shaking.

The next stop really captured my imagination. It was a demo of Nvidia’s "reconfigurable cluster", an LCD display that takes the place of today’s speedometer, tachometer, and other gauges in a typical instrument pod behind the steering wheel. With Nvidia’s cluster, automakers (and hopefully drivers) can configure their cluster to display whatever information is most useful to the driver at that particular time.

The one configuration that I really liked (at the 5:20 mark in the video) had vehicle speed, tach, and fuel level – and also a simplified navigation map in the background so that you can see your route without turning your head to look at the main car LCD. I would use this feature all the time, mainly because I have the short-term memory of a grey squirrel (and not the brightest of grey squirrels). I find myself constantly looking away from the road to check the map, my progress, the next turn, etc.

Other views can show alerts such as low tyre pressure or an open door. And the VCM opens the door to a lot of other possibilities (now that’s a great segue). Because it’s essentially a computer with processing, storage, display, and I/O, the VCM can run applications. Auto manufacturers or third parties could develop apps that allow drivers to highly customise their environment and make driving a much more interesting and engaging experience.

Today, you can get phone apps that will allow you to drill down into your car’s performance, logging acceleration, g forces, and lots of other factors. In the future, your car can run those same apps, customised for and integrated with your vehicle, pulling data from your car’s sensors.

The last demo was of a futuristic driving yoke that had a slot for a tablet. It looked more like a gamer driving yoke than a traditional steering wheel. The tablet and car communicate, trading info on where you want to go and how to take you there. The tablet can also store your media and play it through the car audio system. Plus the tablet could be used to provide compute, storage, and I/O resources for any apps in use during the drive.

Dave pointed out that each of the demonstration systems was built on a different operating system platform: Windows RT, Linux, and Android. This surprised me – there wasn’t any outward sign that the apps were running on different platforms, which means the designers did a good job. Nvidia did this to drive home the point that they’re OS-agnostic and to prove that this technology can co-exist with today’s software flavours.

Car tech may is fast becoming the new arms race among auto manufacturers. Nvidia is looking to carve out a place as a major dealer servicing this market. Others are sure to follow, which should make for interesting times behind the wheel. ®

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