Chrysler Driven by Sat TV Technology

Nov 11, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Did you ever have to wrestle a squirmy kid into a car’s child seat? Large automotive electronics companies faced a similar but even bigger challenge. It took a lot of technology to get TV characters Hannah Montana, the Powerpuff Girls and Dora the Explorer into the rear seats of Chrysler’s new minivans.
The potential young viewers of those TV characters couldn’t care less about the electronics. Their parents are only mildly more interested in how the technology works.
But for Chrysler, Sirius Satellite Radio, STMicroelectronics and Delphi Corp., the advent of streaming satellite video in cars is a technology victory of epic proportions.
STMicroelectronics of Geneva, Switzerland, is an electronics and computer chip-making company with operations in the United States.
Live TV in cars may appear to be a simple technology. But Chrysler faced numerous challenges in putting streaming satellite-feed TV onto back-seat screens. The carmaker pushed aggressively to get the family-friendly feature into its minivans.
“We’ve been leaders in the minivan market, and we wanted to remain leaders,” said Michael Kane, director of feature innovation for Chrysler. “This was one of the primo opportunities to entertain those customers’ children.”
Long in the Works
Getting live TV into cars has been in the works for a long time. As recently as five years ago, technologists were still focused on trying to put a heavy antenna, very much like a flattened microwave dish, onto the roofs of large and sturdy SUVs.
The idea was to continuously focus to pick up a full spectrum of ordinary TV broadcasts.
Sirius Backseat TV uses smaller antennas and focuses on just three channels. It uses the ubiquitous coverage of satellite radio in North America to stream shows from the Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel to specially equipped vehicles.
Chrysler is introducing the system as a $470 option on top of the $1,750 rear-seat entertainment system in its top-of-the-line 2008 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans. Users also must maintain a satellite radio subscription, Kane said.
After the first year, the TV subscription costs $7 per month. That’s in addition to the satellite radio base subscription of $12.95 per month.
During the next year, Chrysler also will put the system into the Chrysler 300; Dodge Charger and Magnum; and Jeep Commander and Grand Cherokee models.
Question of Demand
While Chrysler believes it has a market-maker in the back-seat TV system, others are not so sure.
An XM Satellite Radio spokesman said the broadcaster hasn’t found a market yet for streaming video. He adds that inexpensive installed DVD players or even carried-in systems largely satisfy kids who “can watch ‘Blue’s Clues’ a thousand times and not get tired of it.”
A J.D. Power & Associates survey released in August found that rear-seat entertainment systems ranked 15th in consumer interest on a list of 19 emerging vehicle technologies. When prices were revealed, the systems fell to last place.
Still, some in the industry think once streaming TV is demonstrated and more consumers understand it, the market could take off.
“In terms of our future road-mapping, we do see video streaming into the car, and that may well be with a party like Sirius,” said Eric Goldman, president of Hughes Telematics.
Chrysler said 20 percent of new minivans ordered so far have the back-seat TV option.
Doug Wilsterman, general manager of Sirius’ automotive division, said the idea for the satellite back-seat TV system first came from Sirius, which demonstrated the capability at the 2004 Consumer Electronics Show.
Chrysler challenged Sirius to make the satellite feed available rapidly. Sirius is responsible for both the content of the satellite broadcast and the satellite infrastructure needed to bring the signal into the car, Mr. Wilsterman said.
“We’re a content provider, and we don’t know where these vehicles are going to be at any given time,” he said. “They could be in Detroit or in L.A. We have to do the programming that’s appropriate for a given audience.”
The Sirius signal will carry only mild material and not programming aimed at teens 14 years old and up. That excludes the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” and Nickelodeon’s “Nick at Nite.” Disney will broadcast its East Coast feed. Drivers in California will see shows three hours before they appear on regular cable.
Mike Kasparian is market development manager for audio and infotainment systems with chip maker STMicroelectronics. He said creating a modulator chip to decode and display satellite TV in a car was “literally rocket science.” The U.S. space program devised the signal-processing technique now used in Chrysler minivans.
Getting enough definition in the limited signal available to a moving car required an old trick from satellite communications called hierarchical modulation. In that process, a set of symbols within a data stream can cue an onboard system to automatically fill in additional information.
“By decoding, and decoding again, you artificially create this bandwidth,” Mr. Kasparian said.
Chrysler and Tier 1 supplier Delphi are responsible for the in-vehicle hardware and the electronics that bring the TV signal into the rear-seat entertainment system.
The cars use two standard satellite receiver antennas, each smaller than an adult’s hand. They are spaced apart on top of the vehicle to improve separate audio and video reception. Signals from the compressed satellite video broadcast go to a separate video processing unit in the car. Audio is fed from the standard satellite radio system.
The components can be distributed around the vehicle for heat dissipation and packaging, rather than having to fit in the already crowded instrument panel or overhead.
The picture quality itself may not be very high, but the screen size in a car is small enough that high definition isn’t needed, said Chrysler controller area network bus systems engineer Tim Potochik.
Developing the needed silicon chip for automotive use before testing it as a consumer market item was a race to the finish, Mr. Kasparian said.
STMicroelectronics had guaranteed that the correct chip would be available.
Delphi, meanwhile, had to build the video components with a placeholder, trusting that things would come together in time for production.
“I should give credit to Chrysler,” Mr. Kasparian said. “I’ve been in this industry a long time. Chrysler really took the risks. Normally, a carmaker would not take the risk.”


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