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Car cockpits are transforming rapidly for work and play.
Car cockpits are transforming rapidly for work and play.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pexels)

SMART COCKPITS Cockpit/Infotainment electronics technology innovations

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

In-vehicle automotive electronics and infotainment will be critical in connecting changes in automotive usage modes and patterns to commuters, travelers, mobile workers, and excursionists. Car cockpit innovations and trends are merging to change the driver and passenger experience in vehicles.

The experience of being in an automobile—sometimes viewed as taxing, uncomfortable, or particularly strained—will be undergoing rapid change as car cockpit systems introduce new functionality and new ways of controlling and observing car features. Rather than being confined to traditional roles of task-focused driver and unoccupied (and possibly bored or stressed) passenger, vehicle occupants will be freed from their former capacities to become more informed, productive, and entertained as technology delivers new innovations to car interiors.

While the vision of the automobile as a work, play, or entertainment space is decades old, only recently have these concepts started to look like a potential reality as advances in engineering have allowed automakers to finally have free reign with new tools, devices, and diversions for passengers and drivers alike.

Modernization of car cockpit technology is not necessarily all coming from established Tier 1 suppliers in the auto industry but instead is just as much being driven by startups and carmaker OEMs.

The current state of cockpit systems

Some automotive electronics trends that are manifesting themselves presently are an expansion in the number, size, and quality of in-vehicle displays, as well as the integration of voice recognition, natural-language processing, personalization, AI-enhanced agent, and driver monitoring systems.

By the end of 2020, it’s estimated that 75 % of all cars on the road will be connected to the Internet via embedded 3G/4G connectivity. Acceptance and usage of Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto standards are now widespread. Demand for connected infotainment solutions is increasing. Display screens with digital, computer-generated, reconfigurable instrument clusters are becoming commonplace. There’s growing interest in displays that use 3D, multiple layers, and/or prismatic, auto-stereoscopic,diffractive lightfield backlighting (DLB), or other depth-conveying technologies for a more immersive experience. Eye-tracking devices that may already be in use for driver monitoring may take on a double purpose to better deliver information and images to where drivers’ vision is.

One trend that’s taking place today is the phenomenon of front-of-cockpit displays (which are often touchscreen) being vastly expanded horizontally. These now can present one long, seamless display that’s used for driving instrumentation, route navigation, work-related activities, and infotainment—often all at the same time (sometimes with an optional passenger privacy mode to prevent driver distraction)—instead of several discrete displays that may have previously been separate for each of these functions.

As early as 2015, automakers such as Germany’s Daimler were showing off such expanded displays in concept vehicles like the Mercedes-Benz F 015, while today, companies such as China’s Byton and Japan’s Honda are showing off production-ready vehicles that are incorporating them. By all accounts, it seems that consumers are eager to make use of such displays and may in fact be willing to pay more for them. In Byton’s M-Byte SUV, the Nanjing-based startup has shown off a mammoth, 48-inch-wide horizontal display that addresses both the vehicle’s driver and front-seat passenger.

In Honda’s new E urban electric vehicle (EV), a 32-inch-wide console display is actually three separate displays underneath a seamless top layer, but the surface is so slick, one can’t discern they’re not all one component. Two additional angled six-inch displays on either side of the driver and passenger console show views from the rear-facing cameras that take the place of side-view mirrors on the outside of the car for reduced drag.

The near future

In the near future, the 75 % number cited above for connected cars will jump to nearly 100 %. 3G/4G connectivity will give way to 4G/5G connectivity. The quantity of third-party apps designed for IVI platforms will grow. Vehicles will increasingly be seen as mobile application platforms, with an expanding number of high-quality screens built into them. Cockpit heads-up displays (HUDs) will be in greater use and will become enhanced with augmented reality (AR) to present information and alerts (many related to autonomous driving) in real-time directly in a driver’s visual path. In 2018, Germany’s Porsche and South Korea’s Hyundai partnered with Zürich, Switzerland-based WayRay (which both car companies have invested in, in addition to China’s AliBaba) to show off full-windshield-sized HUDs enhanced with AR-added location, direction, and environmental-surroundings information. Other automakers that have shown off HUDs with AR include BMW, Mazda, Jaguar, Daimler, and Toyota/Lexus.

Germany’s auto parts manufacturer Continental produced a surround-view display for Land Rover’s vehicles starting in late 2018 that allows drivers to “see through” the vehicles’ front-end to view the oncoming road and/or objects or hazards on the ground. This “transparent hood” feature is made possible via four surround-view cameras connected to a central control unit, enabling safer navigation, particularly in off-road settings.

Continental is also working on similar technology that will let drivers see through (via display screens) support pillars that lie between a car’s windshield and side windows. Simultaneously, French auto components firm Valeo has developed a concept system called XtraVue that will let drivers see roads and traffic behind a vehicle even when there’s a towed trailer blocking the view.

No-glasses-required 3D or pseudo-3D display solutions from companies like Menlo Park, California-based Leia (which is partnering with Continental on instrument displays slated for production in 2022) will bring new realism to instrumentation, navigation, and environmental mapping.

It’s not hard to foresee a time when vehicle windows will be able to switch at the touch of a button from being transparent to being opaque and becoming displays themselves. In fact, Robert Finger, the director of product management for car multimedia at German automotive parts and engineering firm Robert Bosch, says that almost the entirety of a car’s interior could one day either be either displays, interactive “touch” surfaces, or both.

American EV startup and hypothetical Tesla competitor Faraday Future has shown off a prototype for its flashy electric FF91 SUV, which has a grand total of 11 screens. These include a relatively sizeable 27-inch “Cinema Experience” screen that drops down from the ceiling of the vehicle for home theater system-style entertainment of backseat passengers. Other screens in the SUV include a windshield HUD, a 15.4-inch central infotainment display for both drivers and front-seat passengers, an 11.6-inch driver instrument cluster display, a similar screen for front passenger entertainment, a 10.1-inch rearview camera display, a screen for climate adjustment, seat controls, and entertainment functions on each of the vehicle’s four doors, and a small infotainment control display at the end of the rear seat center armrest. All of these help contribute to Faraday Future’s vision of the FF91 as a “third Internet living space.”

The long-term outlook

In the long-term, connectivity between cars and cloud-based data will be seamless and continuous. Vehicle- and location-based traffic-management solutions (such as those making use of intelligent transportation systems [ITS]) will be integrated, and both of these will work with autonomous driving platforms.

“The connected car is one of the most anticipated breakthroughs in technology,” said Lee Won-sik, a former designer of smartphone user interfaces at Samsung who now leads the company’s automotive electronics R&D team. “Yet this breakthrough can’t happen without 5G.” In late 2018, Samsung announced it would invest USD22 billion over the course of three years in 5G, AI, and other car electronics-related technologies.

But connectivity is not the only obstacle that cockpit systems makers face. The plethora of information, controls, and multiple screens that designers want to offer to drivers can also present other challenges—namely, those of usability and safety. A 2019 J.D. Power U.S. Tech Experience Index (TXI) study rated the ease-of-use of automotive apps at just 7.63 out of 10, with nearly 30 % of car owners not using built-in vehicle apps at all. Approximately 23 % of owners of vehicles with lane-keeping or lane-centering functions considered alerts from these systems “annoying,” and only 63 % of these respondents indicated that they wanted their next vehicle to retain these functions.

Still, it’s unlikely that carmaker OEMs will take remove or reverse technological updates to cockpits. Instead, the more important question is one of expense; how can unit costs of all this new hardware be brought down low enough to not increase car prices substantially? The challenge for automakers—even with shared mobility solutions making up a larger percentage of future auto sales—is how to incorporate the latest and greatest technology without bumping car sticker prices out of the realm of affordability. As always, competition between carmakers will make this an interesting story to follow.

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