Hard disk drives for automobiles

After revolutionising the way we live, hard discs are set to create their biggest impact yet: in the car industry.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 06 Oct 2006 Views icon4960 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Hard disk drives for automobiles
The year 2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the hard disk drive and, in celebration, much has been written about the evolving history of this ingenious device. Its impact on our day-to-day lives has been monumental. From airline reservation systems, to ATMs, to video games, TiVo, PCs and laptops, e-commerce and even the internet itself, hard drives have certainly enabled a variety of life-changing technologies. But many believe the real impact of the hard drive is yet to come.

Each year, scientists and design engineers stretch the boundaries of existing hard disk drive technology, paving the way for new uses that promise to enhance our lives. Hard drives are already found in a handful of luxury cars on the road today. Their unique ability to store and access enormous amounts of information makes hard disk drives the technology of choice for state-of-the-art automotive stereo systems and global position systems (GPS).

But this is just the beginning. Over the past three years, hard drive companies, like Hitachi Global Storage Technologies, have been working with automobile manufacturers and their suppliers to design, test and incorporate new hard drives that enable a host of futuristic applications for the car. Their full-scale entrance into the US marketplace is just months away with assembly lines already filling with new models of hard drive-equipped cars being prepared for showrooms across America.

But preparing the hard drive for use in automobiles was not simply a matter of finding a place to mount the device. Once the automobile industry was identified as an exciting frontier for future hard drive applications, engineers had to address several obstacles. First, they had to address issues related to wide temperature variations. Unlike home and office environments where most hard drives are used today, the temperature inside the dashboard of a car can vary greatly. Engineers found that if a standard hard drive got extremely cold, the magnetic layers of the disks upon which information is stored got too resistant, making it difficult to record data.

On the other side, ultra-hot temperatures may also problematic. The unit’s read/write head depends upon a cushion of air to ride just nanometers above the disk’s surface. As the air heats up, it gets thinner and there are fewer molecules around to keep the head flying at its proper distance.

To solve this problem, Hitachi engineers developed thermal fly height control (TFC) technology, an ingenious mechanism that sends controlled current to the rear of the drive’s minuscule head. At low temperature extremes, the current heats the back end of the salt grain-sized head causing it to distort just enough to bring it closer or further away from the surface of the disk as needed.

##### The engineers also developed new media and motor oils that were less affected by extreme temperatures. Together with TFC and other advanced technologies, these design changes pushed the limit of hard drives from traditional devices that are designed to work in 41 to 131 degree Fahrenheit environments, to automotive super drives that perform extremely well in temperatures ranging anywhere from –22 degrees to close to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit (-30 to +85 degrees Celsius).

Engineers also needed to solve environmental problems related to humidity and vibrations. Changes in humidity can cause corrosion-forming condensation. Constant vibrations from driving over rough terrain such as cobble roads or railroad tracks can cause standard disk drives to skip tracks when reading data, or overwrite neighboring tracks when writing to the disk.

Another consideration was the operating system that is controlling the drives. Car manufacturers needed to be sure that the applications would work perfectly the first time and every time throughout the life of the car. Software engineers were tasked with developing file systems and control programs that pushed the envelope for their robust, fault tolerant characteristics.

After several years of research, design and testing, the new drives were ready for market. In late 2005, the first automobiles to use hard drives began to roll off the assembly line. Their enhanced capabilities ensured proper operation under virtually all driving conditions – from the coldest parts of Alaska to the sun-scorched deserts of Africa; from well-paved highways that cross the desert, to gravel roads cutting through high-altitude mountain passes.

Once hard drive manufacturers proved that the newly-designed devices were ready for use in cars, a floodgate of possible applications began to develop. For one, simple stereo systems began to give way to multi-channel audio installations. With high-end speakers, noise cancellation and room simulation features, these new audio systems offer an unprecedented in-car musical experience.

The availability of in-car hard drives is also pushing the limits of GPS systems. Once providing simple maps and illustrations, today’s onboard guidance systems are beginning to use real images to help drivers find their destination. Research has found that many people adapt better to maps that provide a 3-D “helicopter perspective” of a region rather than a flat aerial view. And that’s just the beginning. The use of hard drives promises to push the limits of GPS technology even further. Soon, the systems will not only store maps that provide directions but also information about nearby hotels and restaurants and details about passing landmarks.

With the help of satellite integration, the hard-drive-enabled navigation system will automatically update with the latest information about detours and traffic conditions. Recently-released systems will even alert drivers to road hazards and suggest alternative routes to avoid traffic jams.

On the entertainment front, embedded hard drives will offer passengers fast access to libraries of reading material, movies and video games. Today, cars are coming equipped with televisions that avoid driver distractions by automatically dimming while the car is in motion. Hooked to a hard drive-based recording system, drivers will soon be able to watch a programme while stopped, focus on the road when the television screen dims, and then, at their next stop, rejoin the programme exactly where they left off.

##### Plans are also in the works to integrate hard drive technology into automobile-based programmes that use voice commands to quickly access the Internet or other PC applications. New programs will read your e-mails to you and allow hands-free response.

Embedded in cars, hard drives will also help ensure driver safety and maximise vehicle performance. Future cars will be able to record all of the circumstances of a trip. Like an airplane’s “black box,” the hard drive will store information about the car’s speed, its breaking use and its handling. Those investigating an accident will be able to definitively tell if the driver properly used his turn signal, was traveling at the proper speed or was keeping sufficient distance to the car ahead.

The hard drive’s use in cars will also revolutionise automobile maintenance and performance. Connected to a network of multiple sensors throughout the vehicle, the drive will collect and relay information about everything from tire pressure to oil levels. Drivers will know when it’s time to get a tune up and mechanics will be able to tell exactly where mechanical problems exist and what needs to be done to repair them. A complete electronic record of all maintenance and repairs of the vehicle will be maintained for the life of the car.

In 2005, the first cars with built-in hard drives rolled off the assembly line. Less than two years later, the automobile industry is about to unveil dozens of new models equipped with embedded hard drive technology. With few exceptions, every car manufacturer today is already building vehicles with hard drives or has plans to do.

According to Boston-based research firm IDC, the market for in-car hard drives will grow from 1.8 million in 2005 to more than 23 million in 2010. Hitachi believes that at this time, more than seven million hard drives will be sold for use in European cars – seven million in the United States and six million in Japan.

Just as it has for so many other parts of our daily lives, hard disk drive technology is proving to be the enabling technology that will ultimately change our notion of cars and even the driving experience itself. As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this pivotal invention, it’s clear that the hard drive will continue to evolve and adapt to new applications, playing an increasingly significant role in helping us enjoy a safer, happier, more productive life.
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