Harman digital cockpit

Harman digital cockpit

For some time, we have seen cockpit designers working on ways in which to display more information yet make the dash appear less complex.  The general approach is to ensure that only the most essential information is displayed while remaining features are available in the background or brought up at will.  But the increasing fitment of artificial intelligence (AI), connectivity and voice control suggest that this part of the interior is still in its infancy in terms of development.  Continuing just-auto/QUBE's series of research snapshots, this one focuses on the emergence of the digital cockpit.

Jump into a new executive car today and you are almost sure to find a tablet-style touchscreen infotainment system positioned centre stage of the dash. It acknowledges that most of us no longer use maps to find our way around but expect the car to guide us to our destination and remain connected throughout the journey. For example, the Volvo XC90 comes loaded with semi-autonomous and connected car features most of which are displayed on an intuitive centre console touchscreen.

As with most new technologies, what starts in the luxury market often trickles down the car segments. Inside the new Honda Civic, positioned at the top of the piano-black finish centre console - and drawing the eye as the push start is pressed - is a Honda Connect 2 seven-inch touchscreen, serving as the main point of contact to control the infotainment and climate control functions. This second-generation of Honda's infotainment and connectivity system incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration.

Larger, curved screens

Tomorrow's cockpits, according to Harman, will have more curved screens designed using OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) technology. The main advantage of an OLED display is that it works without a backlight, enabling it to blend into the interior.

Harman and Samsung used the most recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to unveil a digital cockpit platform, which combines 5G technology and an IoT platform, across a suite of OLED and QLED screens. QLED stands for Quantum dot Light-Emitting Diode. The digital cockpit comprises three customisable displays and knobs. The 12.3-inch OLED driver display provides information such as speed and RPM. Infotainment is handled by a 28-inch QLED central information display. Positioned below this central screen is another curved OLED display that enables control of other features such as the air-con. The three knobs may be set to functions most frequently used by the driver, such as clock, temperature and volume.

The Byton electric SUV concept features a screen stretching the entire width of the dash.

Screens are becoming larger, too. The Tesla Model S features a huge 17-inch screen. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. China's Byton used the CES to debut its first concept car. A notable feature of the electric SUV is a colossal 49-inch screen stretching the width of the dash.

While Samsung has been pushing back the technical boundaries of LED/LCD TV technology for some time, it has transferred this technology into the car with the help of its subsidiary, Harman. The pair also used the CES to showcase their MoodRoof concept, a QLED display that replaces the panoramic sunroof. In giving a nod to the self-driving car, the roof displays scenes to suit the desired mood, e.g. scrolling images of tree branches or the sky at night.

Other manufacturers shared their thoughts and innovations at CES on how we might spend time in tomorrow's car. As in-vehicle electronics proliferate, the auto industry recognises the cost-, space- and power-saving benefits of consolidating electronic control units (ECUs), across multiple electrical domains. Visteon's SmartCore domain controller, launching with a European-based automaker in early 2018, enables the integration of instrument cluster, infotainment and head-up displays (HUD) into one ECU instead of three. SmartCore alone goes some way to managing more efficiently the increasing demands on networking technologies and processing power, driver information, infotainment and connectivity. It reduces system complexity by enabling a number of domains to operate alongside one another using scalable hardware. 

As we see it, Visteon is a clear leader in the field, with orders already on its books from China and Europe. SmartCore is a sound solution that has given the supplier an edge but for how long? Panasonic Automotive is a contender with its cockpit domain controller shown at the CES, dubbed Spydr, a single brain cockpit domain controller solution directing multiple functions within the vehicle, including an infotainment centre stack display, digital instrument cluster and HUD.

Double vision … Snap

Passengers in the Rinspeed Snap each have three displays at their disposal.

Concept pod vehicles are another familiar sight at industry events nowadays. The Swiss powerhouse of ideas, Rinspeed used the CES to unveil an elaborate mobility system, dubbed Snap. The chassis ('skateboard') can separate itself from the passenger safety cell (pod). A token unlocks the vehicle and customises the displays. Each passenger has three displays at their disposal. Personal settings are selected using a personal control panel. Personal contents and messages are shown on the touch-controlled 'Hover Tabs,' which are brought into position via swivelling arms. Harman's Autonomous Drive Platform also features on the Snap's futuristic skateboard. As with all Rinspeed concepts, the cocktail of technologies on the Snap is mind-blowing,

Hey Mercedes

Hey Mercedes, do I need an umbrella tomorrow in London?

In-car AI assistants are another clear trend. Mercedes-Benz new A-Class features the MBUX (Mercedes-Benz User Experience), the carmaker's new interactive telematics platform. This intelligent, voice-controlled infotainment system is powered by Nuance's Dragon Drive. The system is characterised by its ability to learn thanks to AI – enabling the MBUX automotive assistant to understand the meaning behind and accurately respond to speech. For example, when asking "Do I need an umbrella tomorrow in London?" the system can understand that the question relates to the weather and respond with the correct answer based on the chance of rain. The AI-controlled system also understands that it should raise the temperature in the car if the driver says, "I'm cold".

Arnd Weil, VP & General Manager Automotive & Consumer Electronics, Nuance Communications, told just-auto that we can expect to have more conversations with our cars. He said: "But they need to be meaningful for the driver or passengers, such as recommendations for restaurants, POIs or agenda entries."

Morphing interfaces

Faurecia's showcase at the most recent IAA included its 'Cockpit of the Future'. The technologies included a swivelling seat structure that ensures occupant safety in all positions, developed with ZF. Also on display was a morphing instrument panel. When the driver switches from driving to autonomous mode, the display and instrument panel surface smoothly adapt their position and shape.

Novel shaped steering wheels with centrally-mounted displays might appear futuristic but require a re-think on the location of the driver airbag.  For its part, ZF has developed a steering wheel concept to support Level 3 automated driving functionality. Drivers receive feedback through graphic displays and dynamic illumination. Capacitive touch is featured for horn operation plus a driver airbag concept allowing deployment around the screen interface. The steering wheel's novel configuration presented new challenges as the driver airbag could not be located in its usual area due to the centrally located LCD screen. ZF engineers, therefore, designed a new airbag concept which can deploy from the back side of the wheel through the rim and covers the display, thus helping to protect the driver in the event of a crash.

Meanwhile, Continental's vision of the autonomous cockpit includes morphing interfaces that can reveal or hide displays as required. "This creates a completely flexible, all-encompassing cockpit," explained Dr Frank Rabe, head of Continental's Instrumentation & Driver HMI business unit.

Whether or not such high-tech wizardry will actually make it onto the road, the above concepts demonstrate the direction the auto industry is taking.