As the information flood spills out of the home and office into the vehicle, there is a danger of overloading the driver.  Matthew Beecham finds out what the industry is doing to give us what we increasingly want, but not too much…

Thomas Beer, senior product business manager, global product centre cockpit systems, Johnson Controls, believes that the solution for information overload is not to offer the consumer too much freedom. “We still have to consider that a car in a highly dynamic traffic environment is not a personal computer,” he said. 

“Public traffic safety and compliance with legislation must be our top priority. It would be unthinkable to allow a driver to drive with artists albums in the cluster and move the tacho into a submenu of the floor console.

“If an accident occurs, who would be held responsible? The driver for using the options or the OEM who provided the options? We do not think that reconfigurable displays will solve this problem. Good HMI concepts and cognitive workload managers will one day help the driver by automatically providing the information that is needed and can be understood in a driving context.

“Personal configuration within ergonomic limits might become a trend, in order to give drivers the freedom to reasonably customise their vehicle. In some cars, the driver is able to select skins, or driving modes from comfortable to sporty. In this case, the appropriate instruments are selected.”

Gert-Dieter Tuzar, principal designer Human Machine Interface (HMI), Johnson Controls, adds that platform devices such as car phones, radios, CD players and navigation systems could be controlled with a centre console.

“Recently, one can see a strong trend toward assistant systems,” said Tuzur.  “These systems shall relieve the cognitive burden on drivers. Obviously, there is a need and desire by consumers to spend money on infotainment and assistance while driving. OEMs are very familiar with the danger of information overload and have developed individual ergonomic and scalable HMI concepts that allow safe driving. Automakers focus strongly on which information is presented in what context. And they are very critical about displaying content and providing interaction options while driving.”

Voice recognition

Voice recognition is seen by some as the answer to eliminate many controls that have traditionally been manually operated. Visteon executives told us: “Voice can play an important part of a multimodal HMI solution for inputting information or for cutting through layers on the menus by requesting a function directly.

“Traditional voice control was centered around a set of fixed commands with catatonic responses which required some level of driver training before the system was effective. With the advent of the new low power, high performance micro processors, as found in the Visteon infotainment and internet platform, there is now the ability to use smarter voice command engines linked into the HMI logic. Even natural language and grammatical analysis are becoming more achievable”

Reconfigurable instrumentation

In anyone’s language, it is clear that driver attitudes are changing when it comes to applying technology to help them become better drivers. Drivers want more information to make them better behind the wheel, but with style in mind.  In addition to the speedo, tomorrow’s cluster will likely feature customisable, stylish dials and gauges and more information about what’s going on around the vehicle. 

Visteon executives told us: “The popularity of reconfigurable displays continues to grow in the automotive industry as they enable the information presented to be structured and managed so that the driver gets precisely the data that he or she requires in all driving conditions.

“Visteon has researched the use of reconfigurable clusters since 2005 and found that consumers appreciate the flexible nature of the reconfigurable cluster but consider a traditional style graphics approach to be the most suitable for the control interface of the vehicle. The focus on reconfigurability has therefore moved more towards enhancing legibility by reconfiguring the flow of information to support varying vehicle modes such as night mode, cruise control mode, or as in the case of Visteon’s cluster for the Ranger Rover, “off Road mode”.

“Visteon’s reconfigurable cluster solutions are based on a global platform approach which provides vehicle manufacturers with cost-effective solutions through hardware and software architecture reuse.”

Michael Boyd, manager of display technology and advanced development, Yazaki North America Inc, believes that the driving factors for reconfigurable instrument displays are driver adaptation to getting information from displays, and the need to display an increasing amount of information in a fixed space in front of the driver.

Boyd told us: “As computers are now an integral part of our daily lives, we have adapted to getting information from a digital display, navigating through menus, and using touch screens or other physical user interfaces. People read newspapers or magazines online, operate consumer devices with small screens and multiple levels of menus, and operate appliances in which analogue gauges have been replaced by digital displays. With the proliferation of digital displays, there is now a value in implementing a multifunction display in the vehicle.

“Another factor is the amount of information available to the driver from an increasing number of vehicle systems such as collision warning, lane departure, satellite radio, and navigation. All of this information must be displayed in a fixed space in front of the driver. A digital display can be reconfigured to present the most important information to the driver or allow the driver to select which information is viewed.”

Touch screens

The growing number of car functions and accompanying control elements mean designers and ergonomic experts face an increasingly difficult task.  While these comfort, information and entertainment features are seen as opportunities for adding value and individual character to vehicle interiors, there is a limited amount of installation space available within easy reach of the driver and front seat passenger.  Touch screens with built-in information and operating components may be the answer to this challenge.  Yet this technology, which is a familiar feature of many other application areas, has not made much headway in vehicle interiors to date, with the exception of a few navigation systems.

Tuzar points out that there is a clear trend toward high-resolution and bigger displays. “On the positive side, we see true colour information representation, dynamics, and highly sophisticated graphics. Display size also matters with respect to a more appropriate size of the displayed information. On the negative side, we are challenged by display packaging, power consumption and heat development.”

Visteon executives told us: “A number of automakers are poised to continue their use of touch screens into the foreseeable future. One way that we anticipate touch screen evolving is through the use of supporting technologies like haptics. Haptics can be used to provide touch screens with tactile characteristics of more familiar traditional controls

“Current automotive touch screens have yet to adopt some of the more advanced interfaces provided by the CE devices such as gesture recognition (finger swiping with graphic inertia based on speed of gesture, dragging and multi-touch zooming)  Visteon is investigating how these CE type interfaces can provide benefit in the automotive environment. 

“Visteon are using touch screen solutions as part of a multimodal HMI approach where the HMI decides the best way for the driver or passenger to interface with the vehicle based on the current driving situation.”

Visteon executives add that there is a trend towards increased display size but there are limitations caused by vehicle size, the available package space and affordability. “In the mid and premium vehicle segments, the growth in larger display sizes have plateaued as the solutions are beginning to become package constrained. However, there is also an emerging trend for large letter box shaped single and dual view image display solutions which package higher up in the console.”

Meanwhile, Yanfeng Visteon Automotive Electronics has introduced its so-called Advanced Cockpit Electronics Interface (ACE-I) system. The application features driver interaction with vehicle controls including navigation, video, audio, climate and driver information. Drivers choose to interact with the vehicle by voice, buttons or touch-sensitive commands. ACE-I features a 7-inch colour reconfigurable Thin Film Transistor screen with touch-sensitive functionality. Alternatively, users can control all functions through steering wheel-mounted buttons or through Mandarin Chinese voice commands. Additionally, the screen allows handwritten input for navigation. Users can play music or video through their preferred personal devices including SD cards, USB keys, MP3 players or Apple ‘s iPod devices.

Head-up displays

Head-up displays – or HUDs — are gradually becoming popular. A Hud is a system which projects a visual image at a distance of about 2-metres in front of the driver.  A projector located in the dashboard projects an image which, when reflected on the windshield, appears like a virtual image on top of the bonnet. Head-up displays are seen as playing an important role to prevent distracting the driver too much.

“The number of factors that contribute to driver distraction will continue to increase,” said Boyd. “What the head-up display offers is a location for driver information that minimises the time your eyes are off the road. For example, by placing radio information in the head-up display the driver can change the station without spending significant time looking down at the radio. The head-up display also offers a location with high probability of driver recognition. This is important when displaying information from safety systems where driver response time is critical.

“An increasing number of drivers are gaining experience with a head up display as more vehicles are offering the option. With increasing driver acceptance of the head-up display, it is moving from a curiosity to an integral part of the driving experience. Brands offering a head-up display include GM, Saab , BMW , Toyota , Lexus , Citroen , and Peugeot and there is interest from the commercial vehicle market.”

Boyd concludes that the there are some common themes between automotive and aerospace HMI design and technology. “Aircraft and automotive designers have incorporated multifunction and head-up displays for the same reasons; to improve operator safety and efficiency. In automotive there is a bigger challenge in designing an effective user interface due to the broad range of driver capabilities. In contrast, an aerospace cockpit is designed for a highly skilled and trained pilot. The aircraft and automotive cockpits are very different environments but are designed with the same fundamental HMI rigor. In automotive there is a much higher emphasis on styling.”