Superficially, instruments appear much the same today as they did 30 years ago, but they have changed extensively in that time and they are likely to change even more. Matthew Beecham talked with Dimitri Baudon, product manager, Yazaki North America, Inc about he sees the vehicle instrumentation sector shaping-up.

just-auto: As the information flood spills out of the home and office into the vehicle, is there a danger of overloading the driver? i.e. is this perhaps prompting automakers to question assumptions about how display content is used or whether it is used at all?

Dimitri Baudon: Absolutely. The important question is what information is most relevant in the vehicle, and where? Besides the traditional information that is available, additional safety-related systems such as camera and sensor-based messages are becoming more relevant, recognised and valued by the end-consumer. The real estate in front of the driver is limited. How should the information be broken down between a cluster location, a centre stack, head-up display and rear-view mirror? At this point, we see each OEM trying to define where the information should go.

Total solution providers like Yazaki can support related HMI [Human Machine Interface] studies and make recommendations on which information - i.e. graphic symbols - should go where. Yazaki has the advantage of a Virtual Reality Lab where we simulate different systems and locations and evaluate how the driver processes and reacts to the overwhelming quantity of information.

just-auto:  I guess one solution to information overload is reconfigurable displays and clusters, allowing the driver to customise the information displayed.

Dimitri Baudon:  Display/cluster reconfigurability is definitively a trend we recognise. It is indeed a way to solve some of the issues of information overload, but again the selection/menu choice offered to the end-consumer should be wisely laid out. For example, we cannot allow safety-critical information to be hidden by less vital information, such as the MP3 information overruling a blind spot alert/camera input.

just-auto: It would seem that consumers want seamless integration with the electronic devices they have at home?

Dimitri Baudon: The car is definitively turning into a personal hub where the end-consumer would like to see the interface, menus and graphics that they are used to seeing in at home. Nobody wants to 'relearn' an interface.

just-auto:  What challenges does that present in delivering that in the vehicle? For instance, is there a greater demand for better graphics, clarity and ease of use?

Dimitri Baudon:  We see demand for better graphics and video/camera input all resulting in faster data processing. We see demand for standard personal device (brought into the vehicle) connection and even wireless data and power in the car. The processing platform in the vehicle has to be able to accommodate all that.

just-auto: What are the challenges of integrating consumer devices into the car?

Dimitri Baudon: The challenge resides in designing a seamless interface, where the car becomes the 'brain' - i.e. command/voice - and the personal device becomes the 'servant'. The vehicle 'brain' has to manage the multimedia environment and prioritise the information in case of emergency. The Ford Sync System is the first good example and we expect to see similar solutions to spread widely on the market in the coming years.

just-auto:  Is there a clear trend toward increasing the size of display screens?

Dimitri Baudon: For some vehicle segments, we see it happening. First, we see centre stack displays getting larger - for example, from 8in to 12in - and some OEMs are investigating large digital display clusters up to 12in. Some of the concept cars presented at the NAIAS [North American International Auto Show] 2008 were very good examples, including the Chrysler Ecovoyager/Dodge Zeo/Lincoln MKT/Land Rover LRX.

just-auto: What are the consequences of that?

Dimitri Baudon: Somehow, you have to package a larger display in the cockpit. You see new cockpit styling cues coming up to integrate larger display/viewing area. The main issue I see deals more with the heat dissipation of the display and potentially having to bring [air cooling] ducts in the zone.

just-auto: Why?

Dimitri Baudon: In the case of thin film transistor liquid crystal displays -- which are the main display technology used - the larger the display, the more lighting source (LED) and heat you have to manage. This might change in the future with the arrival of organic LED displays and others.

just-auto: Depending on where the screen is located, are there associated problems of reflecting an image of the screen on the windshield?

Dimitri Baudon: The goal is to make the display bright enough so that light coming into the interior of the vehicle is not washing out the information. Brightness-enhanced displays are becoming increasingly popular.

just-auto:  In terms of the screens used to display the wealth of information to the driver, what methods are use to make those displays easier to use?

Dimitri Baudon: The brightness enhancement allows better reading in all lighting conditions. We also have better graphics and crisper images with a better contrast ratio. Everybody tries to go towards a 'true black' display, which allows the best contrast. A true black will be achieved in the future using, for example, organic LED displays.

just-auto: I guess drivers like to have a tactile environment with a vehicle's controls, even for most mundane tasks such as changing radio channels. Do you see touch-sensitive screens and 'virtual buttons' being the preferred response?

Dimitri Baudon: Touch-screen technology is not new but has made a major breakthrough in the past years. The touch screen application for centre stack display is definitely one way to improve the HMI, but it does not appeal to every driver. Therefore the integration of such solutions is very much brand-dependant.

just-auto: Where does that leave the future for voice commands?

Dimitri Baudon: The voice command solutions are still dragging behind other typical user interfaces. The computing platforms that allow a seamless voice command, without having to go through a stressful and frustrating learning process, are clearly improving, but are usually reserved for higher-end vehicles.
 
just-auto:  To what extent are your customers being more precise in terms of targeting different consumer groups nowadays? How does that impact your instrumentation designs?

Dimitri Baudon:  Our customers know very well which end-consumer they are targeting for each vehicle line and brand. The difficulty starts when you deal with a platform that spreads through different brands and types of vehicles. One instrumentation architecture has to be able to 'adapt' to each vehicle and the associated OEM-allowable costs. The tricky part is to design a 'scalable' instrumentation, allowing different information types, graphics and locations while staying in the same physical envelope. This is where Yazaki can apply its experience in mechanical and industrial design, software development, hardware integration, lighting management and complete systems integration. For next-generation vehicles, Yazaki is working on fully reconfigurable instrumentation, full-colour head-up displays, new optics and mirrors and new gearing and motor generation. Yazaki brings simplified architecture and complete systems integration for tomorrow's vehicle applications.

just-auto:  I've heard that future cockpits will allow the centre area of the speedometer to be used to display other information, such as gear recommendations. In terms of tomorrow's instrumentation, what could we expect to see?

Dimitri Baudon: We see two main fronts: First, the survival of analogue for both low-end and some high-end 'jewel' interiors - with more complex motion and trim - to appeal to specific demographics with a 'chic/craftsman' appeal. Second, the 'surge' of the digital world with large integrated display or all-digital display, i.e. complex 3-D graphic management and easy end-consumer reconfigurability. The soft side is that instrumentation is key to the interior 'wow factor'.

A way to keep up with the mismatch between the fast-paced 'consumer electronics-driven life cycle' versus the long 'automotive product life' is to allow easy reconfigurability. This can be done by allowing regular downloads of graphics and interface changes (for digital displays) and physically modifying the appearance of instrumentation, with the housing and/or trim and/or appliqué.

Globally we anticipate more and more complexity, information content, reconfigurability and wow factor. We also foresee an extension and/or redistribution of the information in the vehicle; a seamless, spread-out - but intuitive - visual interface will redefine the vehicle interior.

See also: RESEARCH ANALYSIS: Review of vehicle instrumentation

Global market review of vehicle instrumentation and cockpits - forecasts to 2014 (download)