When Convergence was started more than 30 years ago, few would have believed that a little portable digital music player would have such a profound impact on the auto industry. Yet that is exactly the case.

The Apple iPod, along with numerous imitators, is causing the worlds of automotive electronics and consumer electronics to collide like never before, and auto makers are struggling to keep up.

More than 70% of ’07 models now are expected to offer special jacks and plug-in options that accommodate the MP3 player, as iPod friendliness becomes a key factor among new-car intenders.

The entire area of “infotainment” fits well with the overall theme of Convergence 2006: “Reinventing the Automobile.”

Now a crucial part of all discussions about automotive electronics, infotainment is reaching a crossroads in 2006, marking an era of great uncertainty for auto makers and suppliers trying to figure out the future of new systems.

MP3 players, satellite radio, high-definition radio and cell phones all are vying to stake out turf in vehicle interiors, but there are no clear signposts as to where consumer preferences ultimately will lead, or whether today’s iPod might become tomorrow’s 8-track player.

All the above technologies boast the ability to supply high-quality audio and a mind-numbing array of information and entertainment options.

That includes the capability to automatically capture and replay a huge variety of music, as well as provide information services, such as help in finding an open parking place in the city.

But a new vehicle takes three or four years to develop, goes another four or five years before it is redesigned and ultimately lasts 15 years or more before it finally is crushed and recycled.

With that kind of product cycle, how do auto makers integrate or accommodate the latest consumer electronic devices, whose designs may last only 12 or 18 months before they are declared obsolete or out of style?

A variety of technical sessions will address these and other issues at the upcoming Convergence 2006 automotive electronics conference Oct. 16-18 at Detroit’s Cobo Center.

Among them:

  • `Content/Services
    Chaired by Robert Schumacher, director-advanced product development & business strategy, Electronics & Safety, Delphi Corp., the session will examine the technical and business trends behind recent advances in wireless communications, digital compression and data-storage technologies that are revolutionizing infotainment.
  • Reinvent Infotainment Architecture
    Chaired by James Geschke, vice president-electronics automotive systems group, Johnson Controls Inc., the session will look at how interiors can keep pace with the changing technology in the electronics industry and how the auto industry can develop standards that allow the integration of consumer electronics without compromising the vehicle’s electrical system.
  • Dealing with Digital Connectivity
    Chaired by Myron Trenne, vice president-research and development, Yazaki North America Inc., the session will provide insights into the considerations required to manage the complex puzzle of connectivity. It will cover the spectrum of vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicle-to-consumer devices and vehicle-to-drivers and passengers.
  • Reinvent User(s) Experience
    Chaired by Cary Wilson of Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America, the session will explore the path to reinvent the driver and passenger experience with various human-machine interface elements in the vehicle interior.

Conference details and registration information are available at sae.org/convergence.