Q&A Alpine UK

By Matthew Beecham | 2 November 2007

Since 1978, Alpine has been pushing back the boundaries of in-car entertainment, producing some of the world’s most advanced audio systems, on-board navigation and multimedia applications. This week, Matthew Beecham talked to Alpine’s newly-appointed UK OEM manager, Keith Price, about the future challenges the company is facing and how it is tackling them.

As a result of focusing exclusively on in-car systems, Alpine is specified as original equipment in some of the world’s most prestigious vehicles including BMW, Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin and Honda. Keith Price is responsible for liaison with those automakers on all aspects of infotainment.

just-auto: What challenges are tier-one infotainment suppliers facing at present?
Keith Price:  Naturally, cost continues to be a challenge set by the OEMs but there are technical issues that we are addressing too.  We are seeing increasingly complex systems requiring higher levels of software and interaction between other tier-one suppliers that can number eight or ten companies, sometimes all with differing development processes and languages.

The role of system integrator, whether this is the tier-one or the OEM, is vital for the robustness of the network. The most visible challenge to the end consumer is the integration of consumer devices such as the iPod.  Customers like the portability of these units and want to play them in the car.
just-auto:  What are the difficulties of integrating consumer devices into the car?
Keith Price:  There are three main challenges.  First, how to operate the device safely in the car while moving? Second, how to connect the device to the current architecture? And finally, there are other integration issues such as EMC [Electro Magnetic Compatibility], charging and software upgrades. 

Looking at safety first, it is not practical to operate an MP3 player directly in the car; you need to hold it, see the display and particularly with MP3 players, you need to be able to scroll through thousands of tracks.  Alpine was the first manufacturer to have a fully integrated solution for the iPod and we continue to refine this.  Connecting the device to the car needs care.

Does the OEM want to transfer data from the device to the car or connect by wire or wirelessly? Wireless maybe more convenient but it brings EMC issues. Consumer devices are not tested to the same levels as in-vehicle devices and we have consequently witnessed difficulties in-car.  The growing importance of EMC led Alpine to invest in a full vehicle size test chamber in Coventry that allows us to test two cars side by side to detect interaction issues between vehicles

just-auto: Does using an iPod cause other issues to a supplier or system integrator?
Keith Price:  Yes, it can have an affect on audio quality. Alpine recommends a maximum compression factor of 128kbps. At this level any losses are not so discernible in a vehicle.  It’s very likely that true audio enthusiasts will probably be using CD as a source and unlikely to rely on compressed audio for playback.
just-auto: You touched on the importance of interacting from a safety and convenience point of view. Could you explain Alpine’s approach to improving this?
Keith Price:  Legislation offers some direction for minimising distraction but with the technology racing ahead so quickly it is the engineers and ergonomists who are defining the next generation of HMI [human-machine interface].

Alpine is tackling workload management on several fronts, from conventional solutions through to radical new technologies such as shutter or dual-view display systems which use LCD shutters to allow the driver and passenger to see different images on a central screen. Dual View also allows the front seat passenger to have full functionality while the driver is restricted to a safe level of vehicle information. It unlocks possibilities for offering a gaming environment, for example, or in-dash cinema features previously only available to those in the rear. We have showed working examples on Jaguar’s C-XF concept car.
just-auto: What about customers who prefer a more tactile or traditional feedback?
Keith Price:  Users like to have a tactile involvement with a vehicle’s controls, even for the most mundane of tasks, such as changing radio stations. In response Alpine has developed what it believes is currently a unique technology: a touch-sensitive screen that provides much of the tactile feedback of conventional buttons. The PulseTouch screen utilises two piezoelectric elements sandwiched between two electrodes. When voltage is applied the elements expand or contract to create vibrations when touched. Virtual buttons can create the feeling of real buttons and are highly configurable offering simpler upgrade paths.
just-auto: Are there other technologies on the horizon?

Keith Price:  Voice commands and feedback offer another solution. Our systems available in the US are able to recognise hundreds of commands, repeating the functions and providing confirmation without the driver taking his or her eyes from the road or hands from the wheel. Text-to-speech engines are becoming less “robotic” sounding, creating a better interface for the customer.

Alpine is working on gesture recognition, a technology where hand and eye movement can be used to control features. This has huge potential – it can control a diverse range of functions without the operator touching the hardware. The technology faces challenges, notably the four-dimensional nature of human movement. For example, the same gesture can vary greatly from person to person, culture to culture and sometimes even from the same individual depending on mood. There are other elements we are looking at; defining when gestures begin and end and associated lags for determining the difference between two different gestures that may start the same.  The technology is developing well though; a simple system with two or three gestures is possibly only three to four years away.

just-auto:  Even complex head units seem to be becoming commodity items, how is Alpine facing the changing market?
Keith Price:  Alpine is looking at the bigger picture of mobile media.  With our system integration expertise we are able to provide system solutions that include displays, cameras and more recently image recognition.  System integration is key, even in the aftermarket. One of our most successful products this year has been our head unit that has no CD mechanism but offers full control of an iPod.  Selling a radio with no CD mechanism would have been inconceivable two years ago but now it is a product with very strong sales and definite interest from the OEMs.  They like the simplicity, weight and cost benefits. 

just-auto: Together with the technologies you describe, Alpine is synonymous with premium sound systems.  Recently, we have seen many domestic premium audio suppliers entering the market. How is this affecting Alpine?
Keith Price:  On one hand it is a positive.  It is raising awareness of premium audio and is driving interest in improved in-cabin sound.  Second, some of these companies are not experienced in automotive installations and the complexities of systems integration and compatibility with the vehicle.  A car is a really challenging environment; an enclosed space filled with a variety of materials that either reflect or absorb sound waves. There is background noise that severely affects portions of the frequency range and environmental conditions (temperature, humidity) that are never experienced in a home.  There are also the EMC issues already discussed.

Getting good sound requires considerable experience and I think this is a key differentiator for Alpine. In-car is all we do and all are technologies and developments are for improving sound in the car.  We have a new technology called IMPRINT, which combines powerful new signal processing hardware with optimisation algorithms and a rigorous approach for the tuning of sound properties to the precise characteristics of individual vehicles. On the other hand, end customers are increasingly attracted by brands they know from the home and are prepared to pay a significant premium for the badge. 

We think the proof is in the listening. Day in, day out, does the system deliver an excellent sound you can enjoy and live with? That’s an Alpine strength and we welcome partnerships with premium consumer brands that help us deliver even more differentiation for the vehicle manufacturer.