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Lock ’em in a Room

Perhaps the only way to come up with workable international standards is to lock all regulators and interested parties in a room for three weeks.

It is possible today to sit in a pricey new Bluetooth-enabled car with an expensive, Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and still not manage to get the wireless connection to work.

The problem is not with the car, or the phone. The problem is hardware and software standards.

Not a lack of standards, but too many of them. And too many that are incompatible.

The call for standards is a familiar battle cry at the biennial Covergence conference in Detroit, as electronics engineers and automotive executives struggle to manage the direction and cost of developing and producing new technologies.

But amid the calls for more standards is another underlying battle over standards already in place: A battle to shift or manipulate rules so they favor one technology over another, one geographic region, one way of doing things over another.

Sometimes the reasons for this tension are based on sincere beliefs that a specific technology or direction is superior, and sometimes it simply is competitors grappling for an advantage. Either way, it’s amazing anything ever is settled.

Nowhere is this struggle more apparent than in the discussion over electronic architectures. During one Convergence panel discussion including six of the world’s largest auto makers, the moderator asked panelists to raise their hands to indicate whether they believe various electrical standards will be adopted in volume within the next five to seven years. At no time was there ever a consensus among the six.

Autosar, the German-led consortium to develop a common vehicle electrical architecture, is viewed widely as one of the most successful standardization efforts. Yet many still are skeptical, especially in Asia. Japanese auto makers are working on their own version of Autosar, JASPAR: Japan Automotive Software Platform and Architecture.

Larry Burns, chairman of Convergence 2006 and vice president-research & development and strategic planning at General Motors, is touting the benefits of electronic vehicle-to-vehicle communications, what GM refers to as V2V. The technology uses an inexpensive telematics chip, combined with GM’s OnStar security system and stability control, to create a new level of vehicle control and safety.

Burns was spotted in a session where Brian Gallagher of Denso International America explained a similar vehicle-to-vehicle communication network that uses wireless telephone and stationary WiFi to transmit information.

Asked afterward what he thought of the presentation, Burns said some sort of standards have to be established, because the concept behind vehicle-to-vehicle communications won’t work very well if each manufacturer uses a different system.

Priya Prasad, head of safety for Ford, complains at Convergence about the lack of worldwide harmonization of automotive crash standards. He says little progress has been made internationally in more than 30 years, and that it has taken a decade just to harmonize some U.S. standards.

“We should take all regulators and interested parties and lock them up for three weeks, and they should be able to come up with some international standards,” he says.

Perhaps that’s the method everyone should adopt for getting standards finalized.

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