Tech Industry

The next Java frontier: Your car

Sun Microsystems announces it will partner with General Motors' dashboard technology division, OnStar, in an effort to make Java the computing standard for the automotive industry.

Sun Microsystems announced Monday it would partner with General Motors' dashboard technology division, OnStar, in an effort to make Java the computing standard for the automotive industry.

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Sun revs its engines for Java in cars
Setting up Java as the standard language for vehicles' computers will introduce Sun's core software to millions of drivers--although its use will be transparent. At least 1 million people currently use OnStar, and that number is expected to grow to 4 million users by 2003.

Already used by roughly 2.5 million software programmers, Java allows a single program to run on a variety of hardware types, from giant mainframe computers to handheld devices and even cell phones.

Collaborating with Sun on industry standards may also give GM the ability to put its OnStar technology in vehicles from other automakers without worrying about what computing hardware those cars use.

GM's OnStar subsidiary sells wireless computing services for cars, including navigation systems and voice-activated Internet systems that allow drivers to check email, receive news stories, and get stock quotes, weather updates and sports scores while in the car. OnStar automatically notifies emergency roadside help when a vehicle's air bags deploy, and it tracks stolen vehicles equipped with the OnStar system.

Originally a pricey option available only on the highest-end Cadillac vehicles, GM has installed OnStar as a standard feature or part of an optional package on 32 of its 54 vehicles for the 2001 model year. GM has also supplied OnStar as an option on 2001 models from Toyota's Lexus luxury division and 2002 models from Honda's Acura division.

OnStar, which costs several hundred dollars and is bundled with other high-end options, includes a one-year subscription to OnStar's operator-assisted service.

A one-year subscription to the safety and security package, including stolen vehicle tracking, remote door unlock and diagnostics, as well as emergency roadside services, is $199 per year. A premium package, which adds "concierge" services for event tickets, route support, reservations services and other conveniences, is $399 per year.

OnStar and Sun said Monday that they will seek commentary from other companies in developing the technology, but clearly the world's largest manufacturing company hopes to influence computing standards for the entire industry.

"OnStar is the benchmark in delivering safety, convenience and information services, and this announcement is a natural extension of our intent to maintain leadership in this space," OnStar president Chet Huber said Monday at the Convergence 2000 conference in Detroit.

Not to be outdone by archrival Sun, Microsoft unveiled Sunday its Windows CE for Automotive v.3 and its Car.Net platforms at Convergence 2000. The software, which Microsoft hopes to set up as the industry standard, is designed to operate navigation systems, communications and entertainment services in vehicles.

Similar to the standards that GM and Sun hope to create, Microsoft's Car.Net system would use a language that would become common to cell phones, handhelds, office PCs and dashboard computers. Cell phones could be used to unlock, heat or cool, and start a vehicle--a science that combines telecommunications technology and electronics, also known as telematics.

IBM and Intel also announced plans Monday to collaborate on a non-proprietary standard for dashboard telematics, which is increasingly the domain of cell phones and the Internet.

IBM will lend its VisualAge Micro Edition Java application and Intel will lend its Xscale chip architecture to the partnership, in hopes of creating a variety of wireless Internet tools for cars.

"Automotive computing is an important and growing market segment that both Intel and IBM serve with advanced technology and products," Skip McGaughey, director of marketing and sales for IBM's embedded system group, said Monday in Detroit. "We welcome this opportunity to join with Intel to increase the availability of standard Java technology across leading automotive platforms."

Convergence has been a Detroit staple since 1974, but this year is the first to attract significant interest from some of the top tech companies, including Sun, Sega Enterprises and Hewlett-Packard.

Advanced electronics debuted in automobiles in the early '70s, when automakers began installing electronic ignition systems. In later years, automakers have added climate and traction control, keyless entry systems, and safety sensors.

The average car built in 1999 had about seven times the electronic equipment as the 1969 Apollo lunar module, according to electronics supplier Siemens Automotive. And the market is growing exponentially.

About 13 percent of the cost of today's car comes from electronic equipment, according to Siemens. The cost of electronics on the average vehicle will triple within a decade, boosted mainly by electronics necessary to run an automobile's telecommunications.'s Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.