Lessons learned from building highly integrated avionics suites for aircraft could soon help Garmin gain the pole position in the emerging market for integrated “infotainment” systems for automobiles.

The avionics maker, which has made a rapid climb into the flight decks of a growing number of piston aircraft, business jets and even unmanned aircraft, revealed this month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that it has developed a glass cockpit for automobiles.

Called K2, the system integrates the functions that are becoming standard with today's cars—displays, voice control, infrared buttons and smartphone access—in a way that parallels information management on a flight deck.

Garmin is serious about the potential, with a “very large percentage” of its 1,000 automotive sector engineers working on the project, says Bill Stone, avionics product manager for the company. “It's a large strategic move for us at this point. One of the founding principles at Garmin is to service multiple markets and benefit from the synergy of staying in different markets with common technologies.”

The engineering work is ongoing at the company's Olathe, Kan., location, where automotive engineers work in the same building with aviation and marine sector engineers. “From a profit-and-loss standpoint, the business segments stand alone, but are housed in the same building,” says Stone. “We identified the need many years ago in the aviation market to have strong systems-engineering teams to understand the very disparate systems across the aircraft, even with parts we don't make. We replicated the capability within the automotive team.”

Stone says Garmin is seeing a “tremendous amount of convergence” across the automotive, aviation and marine segments, with cars, aircraft and boats becoming equipped with similar and increasingly complex systems. “They are integrated within and connected to the outside world.

“Today's higher-end automobiles are typically networked vehicles,” says Stone. “There are numerous processors within the vehicles, for braking, fuel and traction controls, audio and navigation functions, and the processors are available on a network, which enables a network solution to elements on the vehicle. Inside the vehicle, we're converging all those different kinds of data so the driver can manage all those systems.”

Stone says what has been lacking are “very highly integrated turn-key solutions from a single supplier.”

Garmin's turnkey K2 has been incubating for a decade. “We've been working with various automotive and even motorcycle [original equipment manufacturers] for 10 years now,” says Stone. “We have been learning as we go along. We have had niche product wins, and our product has been evolving.” Niche wins include navigation systems that were dealer-installed options rather than forward-fit, the path for K2.

Stone says human-factors design will be a key element of K2, with the company leveraging customer experience with technologies such as speech recognition, already being used by millions of customers largely in the automotive sector. “To learn from field experience just from aviation would take very long,” says Stone.

Garmin has not yet announced a launch customer for K2, but Stone says the market is “primed” for the product. “We're seeing levels of integration increasing over the past 10-15 years, and we believe the market to be pretty prime to take it to the next step. There were 7-8-inch displays in the dashboard 10 years ago for only the largest luxury vehicles. Now we're seeing [those displays] in the lower end. To take this to 10-12-inch technology, consumers will react to that pretty well.”

Stone says high volumes for sales in the automotive sector will be boons for the adjoining sectors, including aviation, because of Garmin's common procurement strategies and the ability to get preferential treatment from suppliers.