Some men scale mountains to impress women. Others pen poems. I handed my college girlfriend my MP3 player and a custom 14-song playlist for her to listen to on a Greyhound headed back to our hometown. In 2002, this was a pretty advanced move, and I can partially credit K-MATT (the fake radio station I’d created) with helping me advance that relationship.
The base model Ford Escort hatchback I was driving at the time had an aftermarket tapedeck so I used one of those cartridge adapters to pump Modest Mouse or whatever I was listening to then directly from my MP3 player into my car’s stereo. I was living in the future.
I was also broke in the way most college kids are, so the MP3 player itself was a Rio 600, which I’d traded an off-brand portable CD player and a few bucks for a couple of months earlier. Within a year of that transaction I’d scraped together enough funds to use a student discount to get my first iPod, with a then ridiculous 5 GB of memory.
Over the course of about a year I went from a large optical disc music player, to a 32 MB flash-based portable MP3 player, to a compact hard-drive player with approximately 150 times the storage.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a car model going through that kind of transformation over the course of years, let alone months, and the best way I can explain why is to look at the automotive hard drives that briefly flourished in the late 2000s and persist in cars today even though few, if any, customers still use them or want them. Understanding this weird quirk of automotive history can provide a good guide when considering the challenges faced by automakers in adopting new technologies like autonomous driving systems and cloud-based infotainment.
It Made Sense At The Time
Around the same time I was giving my girlfriend an MP3 player with a measly 32 MB,a small company called Empeg was starting to market a Linux-based in-dash media player that utilized compact hard disk drives (HDD) from laptops to store an incredible 36 GB, the first such consumer product of its time.
This made a lot of sense. Few people had portable audio players capable of holding that much data and, even if they did, almost no cars were sold with an audio jack for plugging something like that into the head unit. Automakers still viewed in-car audio as a choice removable media (tapes or CDs or even the exotic minidisc) or transmitted media (AM/FM or satellite radio). The Empeg car rightly predicted that the successful compression of digital audio files and the decreasing cost of digital media storage (relatively speaking, the product started at around $1,000) would make it possible for people to have access to a huge library of songs in the one place where nearly everyone listens to music.
Another company with a perfectly mid-2000s name, PhatNoise, helped ease automakers like General Motors and Audi into the transition into the file storage era with a product called the PhatBox that was optional on certain vehicles around 2005. Not only did the PhatBox store audio files, but you could also put videos and games on it, though the promise of this technology seems to have exceeded the actual practicality of it as PCMag pointed out at:
As with the audio-only PhatNoise system, you sync the cartridge through a USB-connected PC dock. A handful of kids' films and old (really old) video games are preloaded on the cartridge and can be unlocked for a fee, but there's no easy way to rent and download recent movies so far.”
At the end of the article, the reviewer added that the vehicle he was testing was a Chevrolet Uplander and that the fit and finish of the car was almost up to par with Japanese automakers and that “This is not your father’s GM.” Less than four years later General Motors declared bankruptcy.
Of course, merely shoving hard drives into cars wasn’t an entirely practical solution. First, even the typical laptop hard drive of the era wasn’t designed to withstand the kind of abuse cars regularly suffer through. An HDD is a little magnetic disk spinning at up to 7,200 RPM and before anyone automaker was going to agree to risk having to engage in a pricey and potentially embarrassing recall they’d first need a supplier to provide proof that these hard drives were engineered for automotive applications.
Enter products like the Hitachi Endurastar JK450, which debuted in 2006 and was designed to withstand an 800 G drop shock and temperatures from -22 to 185 degrees fahrenheit. These kinds of extreme conditions are essentially what all modern cars require and it’s why automakers test in places like Death Valley in the United States and above of the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia.
A Hitachi press release from the launch spells out the opportunity they saw at the time:
"The automotive segment is a fun and unique customer set that continues to challenge our technological capabilities," said Shinjiro Iwata, chief marketing officer, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies. "We see a tremendous opportunity for all kinds of useful and entertaining digital data populating automotive hard drives that will make them an invaluable component of the modern car."
Of course, they’d be correct. There was suddenly a fairly wide adoption across the industry for HDDs and not just for music. Suddenly, hard drives were being envisioned to store navigational data, vehicle data, movies, the works.
Introducing The Chrysler MyGIG
The Chrysler MyGIG system was one of the earliest adoptions of in-car hard drives for music storage in non-luxury vehicles. The system, manufactured by Harman Becker, came with a 20 GB hard drive capable of storing music transferred via USB or a CD of burned data, as well as a 6.5-inch touchscreen, navigation with traffic updates, and other features that were at the forefront of infotainment technology.
The system was announced in 2006 for sale in 2007 in the Jeep Wrangler, Chrysler Sebring, and Dodge Nitro. MyGIG would then spread across the line and move up to 40 GB HDDs, though early on Chrysler stopped referring to the system as MyGIG and instead transitioned to more frequently using the UConnect brand they’re still using today.
How many people actually transferred gigs upon gigs of data to their Dodge Nitro? I’m guessing not many. While it’s not particularly difficult to load up a hard drive or USB stick with music and plug it into a car, it’s also isn’t particularly easy. If you did it with recordable CD discs it would take roughly 30 of them to fill up the car, and that assumes you’d want to go through the trouble of organizing folders within the car’s system when you wanted to add and remove new music.
If you want to glimpse into what this process was like you canread about people on various Chrysler forums attempting to do it and the problems they faced.
Additionally, the video below of a Dodge dealer explaining what it takes to upload one grainy photo to be viewed on a low-res display is unintentionally hilarious (the idea that people would want to view photos on their in-car displays is a topic worthy of its own article).
But the difficulty is probably not the real reason why this wasn’t widely accepted. The year that Chrysler debuted the MyGIG system is also the year the iPhone debuted. No longer would people need to carry around an iPod and a phone. And even if they didn’t have an iPhone, that era’s iPod provided up to 80 GBs and a screen and interface that was significantly better than anything a mainstream manufacturer could approach with a car at the time.
Chrysler itself essentially acknowledged this when the 2009 MyGIG/UConnect system added iPod integration.
Though countless versions of the MyGIG and subsequent systems were sold, in almost no other way were they successful and onboard hard drives aren’t really a selling point for cars anymore. The logical conclusion, then, would be that within a couple of years carmakers would have stopped offering HDDs and instead embrace the BYOD (bring your own device) philosophy. That isn’t what happened.
Dodge, a decade later, is still selling Grand Caravans with a built-in hard drive, although it isn’t advertising that fact. The Chrysler Pacifica that’s replacing it, however, offers Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.
It isn’t just older cars, though. Perhaps my favorite HDD in a car right now, suggested by CNET’s Steven Ewing, is the Bentley Bentayga’s 60 GB model.
What’s happening here? Are carmakers insane?
Turning Around A Cruise Ship
Cars are incredibly complex systems that have to be rigorously tested and, even though standardization of platforms has shortened the development times of new models, it’s still a time consuming effort to make a new car. Even the most streamlined sports car, in terms of development, is more like a cruise ship than a speedboat.
Chrysler may not expect anyone to care about in-car hard drives, but they’ve come to the conclusion that the cost and effort required to replace them on outgoing vehicle lines exceeds the cost of keeping them.
According to the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), a new vehicle is on the market for 6.7 years before it’s replaced with the next model or generation, which itself is an improvement of 22% over cars built in the 1980s.There are many sensible reasons for automakers being this slow, as CAR points out in the same report cited above:
“Development of vehicle platforms is quite expensive, requiring a minimum sales threshold be achieved before engineering and equipment costs are recouped. This is a prime driver for minimizing the number platforms in an OEM’s portfolio, and emphasizing global platforms to be able to produce the most number of units off common platforms and component sets. Further tightening of development cycles – which will reduce the number of units off a platform –poses challenges to the industry. Pushing more product development activity through the process than it has been designed for presents the challenges of not having enough resources such as test facilities and engineering talent.”
When in-car audio systems were just head units plugged into vehicles it wasn’t quite as complex to replace them, but now infotainment systems in modern cars are essential and integrated parts of the vehicle’s diagnostics, entertainment, and communications systems.
This is why we’re seeing the shift by so many to BYOD/cloud solutions like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Cost Of Being Wrong
While reducing the number of platforms that new cars are built on has an overall effect of reducing the cost and complexity of production for automakers, it also ups the stakes for these same companies. Make a mistake and you can expect a problem that would have otherwise been limited to one vehicle line to stretch across half the vehicles you make. One needs only consider the Takata airbag crisis to understand what happens when a lot of cars share one faulty part.
The risk, of course, isn’t just that a part is faulty. What if you build up a technology no one cares about? What if you hand over a potential key component of a car to another company only to have that company fail or, perhaps worse, eat into your business?
Toyota and Lexus in the United States have finally relented and are beginning to offer Apple’s CarPlay in its vehicles but, as of yet, hasn’t agreed to allow Google to bring its Android Auto system to its vehicles. With both Apple and Google entering the autonomous car space they are, ostensibly, competitors with Toyota for the future.
The HDD solution was one automakers could accept because it came from familiar suppliers and allowed them to rebrand the offerings as their own.
With more massive tech companies getting into the automotive space with products that retain their original branding (hello Alexa!), automakers hoping to adopt new technologies face the triple threat of a product becoming obsolete, a product failing, or a product making another company richer than itself.
Your Car Still Probably Has A Memory
Though automakers are reaching towards the cloud to do more and store more, the amount of data being created and consumed by the average vehicle makes in-car data storage a necessity.
Around 5% of memory produced in 2016 went towards automotive applications and that number is projected to go up to 10% in the coming years, according to this piece in Forbes. While some of these systems are HDDs, flash memory is likely to become the new norm as it offers better storage and faster recall without the need for a magnetic disk on a motor spinning like a Honda VTEC engine.
These new drives are the children of the systems developed for automotive usage more than a decade ago and will certainly be used for infotainment as well as the more complex tasks necessary for even limited automated driving.
An interested footnote to all of this: Empeg Car was acquired SONICBlue, which is the same company that bought the company that made the Rio 600 MP3 player. It went bankrupt in 2003.