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An Overview of In-Car Information Systems.

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Scott McCulloch                Information Systems

Matric No. 200315724

An Overview of In-Car Information Systems

Recently, automotive electronics have undergone a revolution, in the same way that the home PC has revolutionised the way we work and communicate. The field is one of the most interesting and varied of all information System topics.

Since the late 80s, the term ‘on-board computer’ (or OBC) is an item many prospective buyers have checked on the options list when purchasing a new car. Today’s multimedia equipped vehicles are light-years ahead of the old generation of OBC’s in all respects. Several new models from leading executive car manufacturers already come with systems allowing the owner of the vehicle to, for example - access the internet and email[1], watch a television broadcast, get GPS and route navigation information, listen to a variety of music formats, use an inbuilt mobile telephone, adjust climate control, change driving characteristics and much more, all from one central console.

However, these devices, which have little to do with the actual driving of the car, are becoming more and more advanced – presenting many problems for designers and users alike. The permanently increasing complexity of in-car electronics and the rapidly growing amount of sensors, actuators and electronic control units, make the data increasingly more difficult to keep secure, correct and failsafe.

In a recent survey carried out by Goldman Sachs in America, there are approximately 200 million cars in the United States and an incredible 500 million passenger hours each week is spent inside them. In another survey, Delphi Automotive research found that more than a third of PDA owners use their PDA’s whilst driving and that almost half of all US motorists would like the facility to access their e-mail whilst on the road.[2]

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Current in car technology has leaped forward in the few years since the American survey took place and the current trend for European luxury car manufacturers is to use one information system to control the entire operation of the vehicle. This presents major safety concerns and has prompted renewed interest from governments on the subject of car electronic systems and aids.

BMW, the German car builder, was one of the first manufacturers to adopt Microsoft’s Windows CE operating systems in its cars. The current 7-series model was the first car built by BMW built which relied on a central information system for the control of a variety of non-critical functions of the car.

BMW’s design concept was to provide the driver with a clutter free environment, which was not only less confusing to use but also allowed for a more attractive interior layout. Technicians at BMW’s technology centre in Munich broke the driver’s view down into two zones – a driving zone and a comfort zone. The functions most important for driving and safety on the road are all located directly in front of the driver, like in a conventional car. e.g. the steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals, windscreen washers, indicators and headlight controls. The driving zone also included a push button start and ignition switch. The comfort zone takes control of almost every other non-critical function of the car like climate control, HiFi, television, navigation and car phone etc.

The ‘comfort zone’ functions are all controlled via a central computer running the Windows CE operating system called iDrive. The system is designed to allow the driver (or passenger) to adjust over 700 functions of the car.

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‘What is Byteflight’

‘7-Series Sales Brochure’, BMW AG, 2003

‘Taking a look at BMW’s Clever iDrive system… but not for too long!’, Pistonheads.com, 15th of February 2002.

“In-car computing gets personal”, EDN Access, 17th of November 1998.

‘On the Road Again’, Bill Howard, PC Magazine, 5th of December 2000.

‘Dashed hopes for dashboard electronics’, Rachel Konrad, CNETnews,
16th of May 2002

‘GM to study safety of dashboard gadgets’, Rachel Konrad, CNETnews,
23rd of April 2002,

‘Microsoft revs its automotive engines’, Ina Fried, CNETnews,
26th of November 2003,

‘NHTSA Driver Distraction Internet Forum - Summary & Proceedings (July 5 – August 11, 2000)’,
Published 15
th of November 2000.

‘NHTSA Driver Distraction Expert Working Group Meetings (Washington DC) - Summary & Proceedings (September 28 & October 11, 2000)’,
Published 10
th of November 2000.

‘Driver Distraction with Wireless Telecommunications and Route Guidance Systems’, U.S. Department of Transportation (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), Published July 2000.

‘How iDrive Works’,
http://www.7er.com/modelle/e65/idrive.php (German Language)

‘Family Matters: GPS Safety’, Carol Traeger, 19th February 2001.


‘Twice as frustrating? – The BMW 760i’, Paul A Eisenstein, 26th April 2003.


‘All Things Considered – the BMW iDrive’ NPR (National Public Radio) broadcast, 8th of August 2002.


[1] In-car computing gets personal, EDN Access, 17th of November 1998.

[2] On the Road Again, Bill Howard, PC Magazine, 5th of December 2000.  

[3] From 7-Series Sales Brochure, BMW AG, 2003

[4] Pistonheads.com: ‘Taking a look at BMW’s Clever iDrive system… but not for too long!’, 15th of February 2002.www.pistonheads.com

[5] taken from 7-Series Sales Brochure, BMW AG, 2003

[6] What is Byteflight: http://www.byteflight.com

[7] CNETAsia: ‘BMW glitch locks Thai minister in’, Friday, May 16 2003. http://asia.cnet.com/newstech/systems/0,39001153,39130270,00.htm

[8] Internet Watch: ‘Driver Distraction’, Diane Enriquez, Nov/Dec 2000.http://www.tfhrc.gov/pubrds/nov00/iwatch.htm

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