Audi has been getting quite touchy about its car interiors lately.  A 'control haptics' team has spent countless hours looking, pulling, pushing, shifting, turning and feeling parts of the interior drivers use every day.  As Matthew Beecham finds out, they're aiming to ensure that every new Audi model looks and feels like vorsprung durch technik.

Get that Audi feeling

Haptics is about getting the ergonomics and operating logic just right. "It's important to take haptics seriously," said team leader Gerhard Maunter.  "A certain degree of sensitivity is also required. This kind of sensitivity is not really based on physical properties such as the way the fingertips react; it is more of a process of awareness that takes place in your brain."

For each new model, the team draws up a general haptic concept. To achieve this, they get involved in the development of new Audi models at an early stage, evaluating all control elements inside and outside the vehicle, from the door handles to the ignition lock and from the gearshift and steering-column levers to the electrical switches.  Control elements are evaluated according to the following criteria: light action, moderate control movement distances, defined stops, exact guidance, low noise emissions and a definite tactile and acoustic response at the switching point.

"Audi drivers want to receive a clear response when activating a function," said team member Torsten Kolkhorst, who works in Audi's steering wheel design area.  "If they press a button, for instance, how the effort that's needed actually builds up is important. Haptic response also includes acoustic feedback such as an audible click. The right combination of those two gives customers the certainty that the function has indeed been activated. A tiny plastic switch located behind a large, rigid surface is a disappointment. It operates under false pretences. The same is true for surfaces.  If a surface looks like aluminium, it ought to be aluminium."

In essence, it's all about making life easier for the Audi driver. "The less they are distracted while operating the controls, the better," said Mauter.  "Operating haptics are only perceived unconsciously. If the customer doesn't notice anything particular and feels comfortable in the car, we have done our job well."

Entertaining the modern family

Not so long ago, the humble cassette player formed the basis of in-car entertainment.  It is now being challenged by a whole host of technologies.  Radio, the oldest in-car entertainment meduim, has entered the digital era. Digital radio and DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) systems, television and video, e-mail and Internet access, dynamic satellite navigation systems, enhanced telematics and voice activation systems are becoming commonplace.  For children sitting in the back, however, I-spy-with-my-little-eye seems not enough to keep them quiet on long journeys.   They want high tech entertainment, too.  And there is certainly a vast range of video packages on offer as OE and aftermarket equipment.  According to Delphi, however, the next logical step in the evolution of rear-seat entertainment is theatre-style surround systems.  "The rear-seat audio/video option enjoyed great popularity when it was first introduced. Adding this new dimension of theatre quality is bound to enhance its market appeal," said Bob Schumacher, general director of Delphi's Mobile MultiMedia Business Unit.

Delphi's latest unit features a DVD playback integrated into the radio head that also has a six-disc CD changer in the same head unit. The smart digital amplifier switches between 5.1 audio and the 5.1 rear-seat entertainment system, which has an adjustable sweet spot for optimised acoustical imaging. Sounds are placed in a three-dimensional space around the passengers. The system comes with an infrared remote control and a 7-inch LCD screen that flips down from the vehicle headliner for viewing.

The net result is pretty impressive.  There are no tinny sounds.  Cymbals sound like they are being clashed right there and voices sound like the people are in the vehicle. Schumacher reckons that it is the ultimate in sound quality. "I believe every family that enjoys a good movie is going to want this system."

Just-auto tech bytes

· US school buses sighted in the Yorkshire dales

Last month saw the debut of US style school buses in northern England.  Children at an infant school in Heptonstall, set deep in the Yorkshire dales were the first to travel on the boxy-shaped buses.  As the vehicles do not fully meet UK and European road traffic standards, they have exemptions to allow them to run on this side of the Atlantic.

· It takes different grains to make an instrument panel

Johnson Controls says uniform patterns on the surfaces of instrument panels are a thing of the past. The US interior parts maker has developed a technique to emboss different grain patterns onto the surface next to each other in one working step.  The so-called In-Mould Graining technology was developed as an alternative to the usual laminating technologies used for dashboards in mid-range cars.  The process will be used in used in 2004

· 5 million ESPs and going strong

After introducing the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) in series production in 1995, Bosch has just produced its five-millionth system. In 2001 alone the automotive supplier built over 2 million units of these electronic brake control systems.  ESP can prevent skidding or at least better control the vehicle. It can ensure the stability of a vehicle even in critical situations.  It senses changes in vehicle behaviour and, by braking individual wheels, corrects under steer and over steer to keep the vehicle on the road.

Bosch says that planned sales of the system will continue to increase strongly over the next few years.  While it took Bosch almost six years to manufacture the first five million units, the ten-million threshold is to be reached by mid-2003.