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In-Vehicle Computers

 
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Pear Head
Past MnGCA President


Joined: 04 Apr 2004

Posts: 5697

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2006 1:35 pm    Post subject: In-Vehicle Computers Reply with quote

I know there is at LEAST one person here that has a computer mounted in their vehicle.

I'm looking for suggestions and trying to understand what others have done. Anything from mounting, software, and hardware. The more information the better.

I'm looking primarily at mapping, but would also have the ability to run things like GSAK, Explorer, etc. Windows based most likely.
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Arcticabn
Past MnGCA Board


Joined: 30 Nov 2003

Posts: 1846

PostPosted: Sat Feb 04, 2006 3:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well you've got to look into several different areas of your discussion. The PC, mounts, GPS signal, power and software.

First off is of course the computer. The smaller the computer the better of course. But that also raises the price. The Sony Vaio has a really nice compact design if you want to pay more then $2 grand for a PC. Otherwise you start getting into bigger screens. I found an old Fijitsu tablet PC with docking station that mounts really nicely onto the console between the drivers and passangers seats. Its a touch screen so that works great wile driving. Disadvantage is that if the applications required typing its useless on the car. I use it for a combination of Streets and Trips (tied to a GPS for a moving map navigation system), and convert the gpx files to html and then can use either IE or Netscape browsers to view the cache pages if I need to. It's old and it's slow but it works for this specific application.


Mounts. There are a lot of ways to mount your PC in your car depending upon how you plan to cache or if you have other riding. Look in any police car today and they have a notebook mounted in the front.

If you go with a full up notebook PC the best company out there that I found to have mounts is RAM.

http://www.ram-mount.com/laptopcomp.htm

But there not cheap. Moreover choose the right one. It can take up space in the passangers area. If you are planning on using it by yourself you can probalby make a mount for the passanger seat and the seatbelts to hold in in place. I used to do this. The disadvantage here is that you have to look right a lot to view the screen taking your attention away from the front of the vehicle.

GPS Signal. Any mapping software thats going to give you realtime navigation needs a GPS signal. In most cases you don't want to use the handheld your going to go cache with because it would mean that you have to keep disconnecting it from the PC. In most cases you don't need an expensive GPS just one that has the ability to connecto to your PC through the serial or USB connection. Some of the software out there today even compes with a GPS just for PCs. Getting an older Garmin like a III or a V and dash mount is all you really need.


Power. You also want to think about putting in a DC/AC converter so that your PCs power supply can be plugged into your car. Also good for other AC based systems and chargers if you don't want to spend the money buying car adapters for each device. PC generally can run off one of the 75W adapters without any problem. The 200W are nicer if you want to potentiially use it for some other things while camping and stuff.


Mapping Software. Tons out there. Delorme, Microsoft, Fugawi, and others. They all work, it's sort of what your most comfortable with. I use MS Streets and Trips. Because I can import the waypoint into the map and use it for good situational awareness. I don't use my PC for autorouting. I let my hand held do that.


So my systems consists of a:
Fijitsu Tablet PC running Windows and the docking unit.
Microsoft Streets and Trips 2006
Garmin GPS V
DC/AC converter so that I don't have to run the PC on battery power (it wouldn't last all day anyway).
And some bungies to hold in in place.
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KC0GRN
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Joined: 22 Feb 2004

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 05, 2006 11:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I have considered installing a system in my car for road trips and such, but I'm also trying to weigh in the probability of equipment in the car being stolen (hey I'm leaving my car alone in a possibly empty parking lot for an unknown peroid of time).

Therefor if I would get such a system myself, it would be a cheap used laptop, my only requirement is it runs windows and has a serial port for connecting a cheap delorme gps that I have (plus upload caches to my rino 130). Reason for the extra GPS is so I can have my field use rino along for caches, leaving an operational system in the car. Again being cheap enough I wouldn't suffer terribly if it was taken.

Now if someone could figure out a good way to conceal equipment while still making it easy to access once you're back in the car.. that'd be good.
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Pear Head
Past MnGCA President


Joined: 04 Apr 2004

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 05, 2006 11:55 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'll admit that I've done a little research on this myself over the past couple of years. I've seen a couple of examples (that I now cannot find) of this with APRS (Ham radio) equipment.

The most common examples I've seen involve using a mini-ITX motherboard and a DC-DC power supply that will run solely off from 12V. The display is typically a flat-panel display. This has the advantage of being able to hide/mount the main computer under or behind a seat, and throw a blanket or something over the display to hide it from view (better than nothing). It's probably more costly than installing a laptop however, although with this method mounting should be easier (and the keyboard would be optional).

I'm thinking of going in this direction (vs a laptop), but probably would run something with an inverter rather than a DC-DC power supply (due to the initial cost of the equipment). To do this however I would need to find a decent flat-panel display that would work. A touch panel would be really nice, but finding an affordable one may be a challenge. I would think that there must be a Windows program that is a virtual keyboard out there just for touch panels, right? Granted you probably couldn't use this while driving, but it may be useful while stopped.

I'll have to investigate the tablet PCs a little. I've heard of them before, but know almost nothing about them.

I'm also concerned about road vibration with a rotating hard drive. I've heard of systems that either boot from a jumpdrive or CD-ROM, thus eliminating the hard drive.

I'm aware of RAM mounts - a couple of co-workers have them on their boats to hold stuff down. I've purchased mounts from a company in the Twin Cities (and of course I can't recall their name for the life of me) that were of high quality. One I use for an APRS display, the other I use to hold my Garmin Geko.
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Dances With Beehives
Geocacher


Joined: 12 Sep 2003

Posts: 671

PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2006 5:53 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

KCOGRN wrote:
Quote:
Now if someone could figure out a good way to conceal equipment while still making it easy to access once you're back in the car.. that'd be good.


When I used to bring my laptop along, I'd keep it lying flat between the two front seats of the minivan. When I got to the cache, I'd place a newpaper section over it. Kept it protected from dust, and the eyes of a prospective thief.
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WindChill
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Joined: 02 Aug 2005

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2006 9:22 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ive been building these kind of systems professionally for about 7 years now. Here is my two cents worth on building an in-car computer.

1) The most important thing about doing this is power. You need to have plenty of clean power; computers can not tolerate the voltage variations found in an automotive electrical system.

Using an invertor is inefficient, but straight forward. You will need to get one big enough to run your computer and monitor, but bigger is more drain on the vehicles charging system. An invertor is the best choice if you are using a laptop.

If you are not using a laptop, do a search for "vehicle computer power supply". These things come in lots of different configurations and are designed to tolerate the voltage swings present in a car. Many of them also have power management functionality. They will detect when the ignition goes off and hold the power up long enough for the operating system to shut down cleanly.

2) If you dont go the laptop route, look at either a PC104 computer or a mini-ITX mother board. We used to use a lot of PC104 boards but have mostly switched to the mini-ITX because they are cheaper and easier to come by. PC104s are a smaller form factor but there are not as many choices for high-end processors.

3) There are lots of choices for LCD displays. The first thing to look at is what your mother board will support. Most of our systems used either a 6.4" or 10.4" display. We used some speciality manufacturers, but most of them were from Sharp (LQ64D343 for the 6.4"). We used some NECs, but Sharps were typically a bit brighter and seemed to be a bit more rugged.

One of the most important things to know about putting an LCD in a car (especially in MN) is temperature. Though the LCD can freeze, it is the backlight invertor that is more sensitive. If I recall the numbers correctly, each time the backlight is turned on below its temperature range cuts its life expectancy in half.

Another thing to consider is mounting. The data cable to the LCD needs to be kept as short as possible, typically less than 12". This can be increased to 12-15 feet using LVDS or VGA convertors but both of those add cost by adding a convertor board at one or both ends of the run.

All of this assumes a TFT display and digital LCD interface. Analog LCDs are easy come by (run to best buy and get a "rear seat entertainment system") and easy to deal with, but their picture quality is noticably lower when you are dealing with computer-type information instead of a movie or video game. You could get by displaying maps on it, but I doubt GSAK would be usable unless you went with a much larger display.

A good source for all kinds of LCD stuff is store.earthlcd.com. They have everythign from bare displays to kits with enclosure, mounting hardware and touchscreen interface.

4) Touchscreens are fairly inexpensive and easy to deal with. They will have a small circuit board that converts the touch signals into serial or USB. This board usually has to be mounted directly to the back of the display. If you are using Windows, you should be able to download a driver (if it needs one). If you are doing it yourself, touch screen serial protocols are simple to deal with.

5) Hard drives are the good value, but this is a difficult environment for them. If possible, use some kind of shock mounting to help protect them. Hard drives will also have a problem in extreme cold. Solid state, such as compact flash, is a better choice overall if you can get enough at a reasonable price.

6) If you are a geek wanting to build an MP3 player, or do custom stuff, Id suggest using Linux. But for running a mapping app and GSAK, you'll need Windows. There are a couple of big downsides to Windows in this environment: startup and shutdown.

Windows can take quite a while to start up. Not too big a problem for this kind of application (definitely a problem if it is providing the main vehicle instrumentation). Shutdown is the bigger issue. Windows _must_ be shutdown cleanly or "arbitrarily bad things happen". When we use Linux, we set things up so that the OS is on a read-only partition so it can not become corrupt. Not an option with Windows (AFAIK) so using a power supply that can tell Windows that power is going away, and can keep things running until Windows shuts down is very important.

Finally, I strongly recommend having a master power switch for the system and a thermometer with a probe mounted next to the display and CPU. This allows you to turn the system off before starting the car, and leave it off until things warm up enough to not cause damage.


I know this makes it sound like a lot of cost and a lot of work, but it doesnt have to be. Though you wont build a system like this for the $300-$400 of a dirt-cheap laptop, it can very easily be done for the $1000 of a mid-priced laptop. Let me know if you have any questions about any of this.
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Arcticabn
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2006 11:52 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

WindChill,

Can you post a link to the company that you work for and builds commercial systems. I'd be interested not only personally, but professionally.

Thanks
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WindChill
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PostPosted: Mon Feb 06, 2006 1:01 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Arcticabn wrote:
WindChill,

Can you post a link to the company that you work for and builds commercial systems. I'd be interested not only personally, but professionally.

Thanks


The short answer is that we dont currently have an off the shelf system that someone can buy for personal use. Ill PM you some info to consider on the professional side.
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