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Dashboard surfing for the masses

Philips Semiconductors debuts a new chip it says will take the emerging niche of dashboard electronics beyond the realm of the luxury car. Analysts, however, are skeptical.

Philips Semiconductors has introduced an integrated microprocessor it says will take the emerging niche of dashboard electronics beyond the realm of the luxury car.

Philips, a division of Dutch technology giant Royal Philips Electronics, claims to be the first to bring to market a fully integrated "telematics"--or dashboard electronics--processor combining all key hardware blocks onto one chip. The SAF3100 telematics processor is less expensive and smaller than many other back-end telematics bundles.

Although industry analysts are skeptical, Philips says the new processor will bring global positioning satellite, remote diagnostics, dashboard Web surfing and other telematics features--currently the domain of the most expensive luxury automobiles--to mainstream cars and trucks. Philips, the ninth largest electronics company worldwide, expects to begin mass production of the chip later this month and to announce new customers by the end of March.

The SAF3100 provides computing power for all the major telematics functions: GPS positioning and tracking, dashboard navigation, automatic emergency call systems, remote-controlled door unlocking and mechanical diagnostics. "Dead-reckoning" capability ensures continuous tracking of the vehicle even if the satellite link is momentarily interrupted. The processor includes a 12-channel GPS baseband, a dual 14-bit analog to digital converter and embedded RAM.

Despite those features, some industry experts say the chip--no matter how technically advanced--could stumble because of prickly issues facing the electronics and automobile industries. The time it takes each industry to produce a product--also known as "cycle time"--varies by several years and complicates the process of integrating cutting-edge electronics into new cars and trucks.

The electronics industry generally operates on cycle times of six months or less. By contrast, many automakers have trouble reducing the cycle time of new automobile production to less than five years; even the most efficient Japanese automakers require three or four years to bring a completely new model from concept to mass-production. So it's unclear whether automakers and their top suppliers will be able to adopt the SAF3100 and bring it to market in a timely fashion--or whether they'll simply leapfrog to another chip in several years.

Another big issue facing Philips and other telematics specialists is whether customers--especially those in the United States, the world's largest automobile market--are willing to pay for fancy gadgets embedded in their dashboards. Recent studies suggest that consumers want enhanced safety features, such as satellite communication that automatically alerts nearby medics if a vehicle's airbags are triggered. But they're generally unwilling to pay for in-vehicle Web surfing or other digital entertainment.

"Whether they're Philips or any other supplier, they may be answering questions no one's asking," said George Peterson, president of Tustin, Calif.-based automobile consulting firm AutoPacific. "They're producing products that (people) might not want to buy. If there's not a big, viable market, all this investment money would sail down the river."