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The road ahead

Bluetooth Low Energy is set to perform a wide range of supporting roles in tomorrow's cars.

With the ratification of the Bluetooth Low Energy standard, several major producers are rolling out dual and single mode Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) chips and OEMs are turning their mind to potential applications.
CSR has always seen Bluetooth LE as a promising technology for the automotive sector. But while it's easy to evangelise this technology, one should remember that it is distinctly more applicable to certain settings than others.

The possibilities
One of the most obvious applications for Bluetooth LE in cars is key fobs and other 'secure entry' contactless devices for identifying the driver, opening the doors, disabling security systems and even starting the car.

While Key fob systems are already commonplace, they maintain nothing like the energy efficiency of Bluetooth LE. Current key fob technology is based on proprietary radio standards. This means there is no allowance for standardised integration of key fob technology into third party devices, such as mobile phones. This development would not only be convenient, but would also allow drivers access to a richer seam of information, such as the car's GPS coordinates.

RFID technology is often touted as a logical choice for such advanced key fobs. However, I would argue that Bluetooth LE, with its much greater range, is a far better choice. Any technology that can identify the driver to a car can, of course, identify them in a manner useful to other in car systems.

For example, a Bluetooth LE enabled key fob or phone could advertise itself to the car's systems, whether centrally coordinated or not, to activate a person's profile. The car's seats and steering wheel, heating and radio could all adjust themselves automatically to that user's preferred settings and playlists.

Critically, with the ultra low power consumption of Bluetooth LE, we expect keyfob and handset makers could have Bluetooth LE set to 'always on', ensuring these use cases can be realised.

CSR is already starting to talk to customers about these and similar applications. In fact, infotainment in general looks to be one of the most exciting application areas. Wireless headsets are one obvious product, but Bluetooth LE will also be used for long battery life remote controls for rear seat infotainment systems. From 2012, internet and Wi-Fi connectivity will increasingly be part of most new vehicles, bringing with it a need for keyboards and other input devices.

Further to this, Bluetooth LE looks certain to supplement the functionality of power sensitive aftermarket telematics and navigation devices. For example, Bluetooth LE could be used to relay data from separate MEMs devices placed around the car – such as gyros and accelerometers – to a GPS device, or to configure navigational equipment according to the driving style of the individual in the car.

Low energy 'wellness' products may also be connected to the in vehicle system to perform 'human diagnostics'. For example, if a driver is sleepy, a wellness product – such as a watch, wristband or monitor built into the seat – could communicate the driver's 'vitals' to a head up display, advising when a break is needed. The system could also set off an alarm should the driver lose consciousness. Meanwhile, a fleet system could mandate truck drivers to wear such a wristband at all times to check for alcohol or drugs. Until now, recharge periods for such small systems have simply made them impractical.

Bluetooth LE may also have applications in automotive diagnostics. Wind gauges, thermometers and structural integrity sensors, to name just a few, may be candidates for Bluetooth LE. As another example, tyre pressure sensors are incredibly useful and need to be mounted within the tyre or wheel, potentially lasting the lifetime of the car on one charge, and communicate wirelessly. This makes them a potential candidate for Bluetooth LE.

Interestingly, there are existing diagnostic technologies in the market today that use batteryless sensors in the tyre, using kinetic energy and other methods to power rf transactions. The benefits of all of these approaches are currently being weighed up.

Bluetooth LE, embedded in the chassis, could also be used to identify the car uniquely from the point of view of inventory keeping and logistics (for car dealers), security, (for the owner and the police) and monitoring and storing service histories for mechanics.

And we should not forget that the increasing popularity of electric motor technology has created a pressing need to reduce the weight of cars. One of the primary targets for weight reduction is the vehicle's wiring harness, one of the heaviest and most expensive parts of the vehicle outside of the engine block. One way to reduce this weight will be to replace much of this with Bluetooth LE communications and button cell batteries.

Less obvious applications
Bluetooth LE is unlikely to overtake the long distance signal of GPS for positioning – its range of up to 100m is simply too limited; you'd have to have a network of reference point Bluetooth LE sensors every few metres everywhere in the world. Nevertheless, it can supplement GPS devices in incredibly useful ways. For example, Bluetooth LE technology can be combined with GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular triangulation, or MEMs devices, to provide more accurate location and faster time to first fix in underground environments, such as garages. And, by identifying the person asking for positioning data, for example through their watch, a system can also add value to any location data; for example, suggesting common destinations or adjusting travel times according to the individual's driving habits.

Bluetooth LE was never intended to replace networking technologies such as Wi-Fi, but it can supplement them very usefully. Rather than continually polling for a Wi-Fi signal and wasting power, the Wi-Fi in a back seat aftermarket networked device could be notified to wake up via a Bluetooth LE connection.

Similarly, apart from GPS, the primary communications medium of telematics systems is likely to continue to be the mobile phone network, for the simple reason of range; telematics systems need to update themselves 'on the fly', wherever you are. Yet even here, Bluetooth LE has a place. In Korea, a system of tolls has been set up in which cars are identified using Wi-Fi as they pass certain waystations on main roads. There is no reason why the same could not be done through Bluetooth LE, thus saving battery life. Telematics systems could also use a 'wellness' watch to notify the emergency services via a cellular connection should the drivers' vitals change in a particular way.

Bluetooth LE is a brilliant standalone addition to the automotive arena. However many of Bluetooth LE's most compelling use cases will involve it being used to supplement other wireless technologies where low power is the key priority. In many ways, Bluetooth LE continues the central Bluetooth philosophy of not forcing square pegs into round holes, but enhancing the overall wireless experience by providing the right technology for the right job.

Author profile:
Thomas Carmody is head of connectivity marketing for CSR.

Thomas Carmody

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