Tom Gebhardt

Tom Gebhardt

Continuing just-auto's series of interviews with global automotive multimedia players, we caught up with Tom Gebhardt, President, Panasonic Automotive Systems Company of America.

Could you tell us about some of the technologies that Panasonic highlighted this year at the most recent CES and your main message?

This January, we showcased an array of Panasonic Automotive's most forward-thinking, user-centric solutions that ensure comfort, safety, and sustainability across all modes of transportation. Our Smart Mobility space highlighted Panasonic Automotive's unique technologies connecting people, towns, road, and air transport using the latest and prototype in-car infotainment and in-flight entertainment systems.

In collaboration with FCA, Panasonic Automotive developed the Chrysler Portal Concept for the future of autonomous vehicles, which included more than 20 user-centric technologies designed to engage, inform, predict, and connect to create a seamless experience for drivers. These technologies allow for an adaptable and upgradeable user experience that anticipates driver needs, evolving with lifestyle changes and technological advancements. Features of the Chrysler Portal Concept include:

  • Facial and voice recognition enables the user to customise individual or family settings, providing a unique drive experience based on preferred features such as exterior and interior lighting, favourite music and enhanced audio settings, and favoured destinations via authentication and predetermined profiles analysed in the cloud. (Physical and Virtual).
  • Vehicle-to-X (V2X) communication allows the vehicle and infrastructure to 'talk' to each other, such as intersec­tion crash warning, traffic sign recognition, emergency vehicle approaching, etc. (Physical Only).
  • Personal Profile Audio keeps the driver aware of surroundings by enhancing sound and directionality in the event of approaching emergency vehicles (Physical and Virtual)
  • Seamless vehicle integration of personal devices such as phones, tablets, cameras, and wearables. (Physical Only).
  • Community sharing enables passengers to share music, images, videos, etc. with other passengers. (Physical Only).

Currently equipped with Level Three autonomous capability, drivers will be able to upgrade in-vehicle systems as technologies continue to advance. The concept includes seamless levels of personalisation including facial recognition, voice biometrics, and personal device integration through the Chrysler Portal Companion App. From any location, this app enables drivers to customise vehicle lighting, control vehicle and home settings, lock/unlock doors, and much more.

Panasonic Automotive is also the supplier partner for the recently launched Fourth Generation 8.4 Touchscreen UConnect infotainment system, designed to connect the 'human factor' and enhance daily mobility journeys.

We understand that Panasonic is partnering with Qualcomm and Google to create an Android-based in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) system. What does Android open-source mean for automakers?

Vehicles are quickly demanding rich consumer experiences, developer ecosystems, and, as the vehicle becomes connected, hardware and software designed from the ground up for connected experiences. Qualcomm is the leading connectivity silicon provider, not only in consumer, but in automotive as well. Basically, if an automaker has a telematics or connected vehicle architecture they are already using Qualcomm. Qualcomm is expanding their content penetration into vehicles beyond just modems to integrated, automotive grade system on chip (SOC) architectures to run full blown Android embedded in the car. 

OEMs are faced with creating an experience that bests what drivers will find on their favourite portable device with automotive grade CPUs and larger, higher resolution displays, while still providing automotive quality. OEMs need to do this with tight integration into the vehicle environment and adding features or experiences that leverage an automotive interior with comfort, styling and a rich experience. 

Through embedding the next generation automotive grade Android, it becomes possible to receive a truly integrated 'consumer meets automotive' experience. This is enabled through a tight integration with sensors, microphones, switches, HVAC, Audio, and truly custom displays. Android also brings an open source, free platform backed by Google that has to address performance, security, and quality issues. Since it uses the same code base as with mobile devices, OEMs get an incredible developer ecosystem with millions of apps to leverage in a vehicle environment. With announcements such as Netflix allowing for off-line 'flight mode,' OEMs can provide further functionality for consumers in the rear seats. Since Android is open source and allows for commercial use, the same code base can be used across multiple suppliers. This results in a better experience, strong quality and security standards, a system built for new processors, and connected experiences at a lowered cost.

Open source formats traditionally have a few drawbacks. For instance, some elements of the Android environment have to be published by the OEM or their supplier but it is still possible to innovate and differentiate to keep those features unique to an OEM brand.

As part of a wave of affordable smart windscreen technology, the Next Big Thing is said to be Augmented Reality HUDs (AR-HUDs) designed for a more comfortable and safer driving experience. Could you tell us what makes your AR-HUD different from the rest?

Panasonic Automotive's Head Up Display (HUD) with Augmented Reality (AR) is one of the world's most sophisticated systems. It is capable of projecting very large virtual images in the driver's eye line, using AR to enhance the real world with HUD-generated imagery. Combined, HUD with AR gives the driver more information and can warn him or her of potential dangers. It also replaces the traditional instrument cluster and with everything running through the HUD, many of the car's traditional physical controls are replaced too.

With drivers subjected to many potential distractions on the move – from making Bluetooth phone calls to receiving dynamic satellite navigation instructions – Panasonic's new HUD with AR seeks to simplify that workload by keeping the driver's eyes where they should be: on the road.

Panasonic's technology features a very compact HUD system, but one that it is capable of projecting very large virtual images – up to 12-degrees to the horizontal and 5-degrees to the vertical – into the driver's visual path at a distance of 10m in front of the vehicle. Teamed with multiple around-vehicle cameras, the system brings unprecedented levels of visual information to the driver.

Augmented Reality technology means that this HUD can then be used to make the driver aware of potential dangers. Because the system recognises objects in the path of the car, it can warn the driver by displaying alerts in the HUD, distinguishing between pedestrians, other vehicles and other objects, if they are potentially on a collision course.

The system uses a total of eight cameras: a rear camera, front camera, night vision camera, a downside view camera, two additional side view cameras and two cameras which track the driver's head and eyes.

These cameras have many uses. The two cameras which constantly track the driver automatically adjust the HUD in real time so that the imagery is perfectly placed in his or her eye line. This means that movements of the driver's head will result in updating the AR imagery so that they match and overlay real physical objects on the road.

The cameras also detect the side of the road and use this reference point to place the AR imagery in front of the driver. The cameras can also be combined to produce a variety of different views, including a bird's eye view of the car, projected in the HUD to give the driver a complete 360-degree top-down image. The cameras also negate the need for physical driving mirrors, with images projected in the HUD instead.

In what ways do you see your AR-HUD advance?

The system's capability is so vast that it replaces not only the traditional instrument cluster but also many of the car's physical controls. Panasonic's demonstration vehicle features a modified interior that distills the HMI down to simplified steering wheel controls – paired with an integrated capacitive touch panel – completely replacing the car's traditional stalks.

The system is then responsible for switching on and off the car's indicators and its lights, notifying the driver via the HUD. The HUD itself is fully configurable and can show all information that would otherwise be displayed in the instrument cluster. Using the steering wheel controls and touch pad, the driver can change all settings via a menu visible on the HUD.

The overriding benefit of this system is that the HUD, making sure that the driver never has to take his or her eyes off the road, displays everything. The driver can also change the layout of the HUD to his or her preference – however if the system detects imminent danger, it will automatically switch to give special focus to warning information.

Demonstrated on a specially adapted Electric Vehicle, the technology can be applied to any new vehicle, while the whole system – from the HUD with AR to the eight cameras – runs from a single computer platform.

What features will the car cockpit of 2030 have?

Panasonic Automotive has devised a full-size autonomous cabin vision that brings together many of our next-generation automotive technologies, including versatile touch displays, smart materials, and video projection. This concept displays how Panasonic Automotive sees the autono­mous car of tomorrow fitting in with consumer lifestyles.

This moving lounge area will contain face-to-face seats, designed around an interactive, highly versatile table that can be moved in a multitude of positions to maximise comfort during each automated trip. This table will come equipped with a detachable circular controller, which can be used to adjust settings and functions such as cabin temperature. The interior trim of the cabin will be made out of smart materials that can assume any shape and will display whatever the passengers please, to create a customisable in-vehicle aesthetic. Augmented reality windows can project information about the cars surroundings, such as landmarks and points of interest. Meanwhile, each seat will have a personal audio zone, with speakers integrated into the headrests. The cabin will also feature an Air Purifier which uses Nano-e technology to eliminate unpleasant odours and suppress the formation of mold and allergens, keeping the cabin deodorised and as clean as possible.

Essentially, Panasonic Automotive envisions an interior-focused vehicle that is the ultimate in family comfort and versatility. All of this technology will contribute to creating a truly feet off the pedal, hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, and mind off the drive experience.

What does the trend for increased digital content mean for information displays?

Customers have an insatiable demand for more and better information displays. Centre stack displays have grown to the point where 7 to 8 inches is the norm. Fully reconfigurable 12.3-inch instrument cluster displays are also working their way from high-end luxury vehicles to more mainstream vehicles. As display capability continues to increase and costs decrease, we see this trend continuing. Head up displays will also begin surfacing on more mainstream vehicles. This will allow for human machine interface breakthroughs so that primary driving information can be shown in the HUD, secondary vehicle information will be in the instrument cluster, and less critical entertainment information will be present in the centre stack display. Panasonic Automotive has a deep ability to create and serve content. But even so, we will continue to test for reliable content that maintains driver safety.

OLED (Organic LED) screen technology has been available for some time yet its application in cars is limited. Do you see anything that could alter this?

OLED implementation has been slowed due to some technical challenges, including expected lifetime in an automotive environment. This is not an issue in the consumer electronics environment where 10 year lifespans are not expected. Furthermore, the quality of conventional LCD display technology has continually improved such that the viewing and appearance gains in an automotive environment are not as significant. We expect to see OLED technology showing up in the automotive environment in limited applications, but it may grow as OLED technology becomes more robust. The patterns in market interest will be accounted for in relation to how Panasonic Automotive resources for continued OLED development in mobility.

We understand that Panasonic is developing smart materials. Which automotive applications are the most promising for smart materials?

The interior trim of the cabin – when made out of smart materials – can assume any shape and will display whatever passengers may please, creating a customisable in-vehicle aesthetic and experience. The materials can be illuminated, animated, or even used to display general trip information, such as cabin temperature or estimated time of arrival. Ultimately, smart materials developed by Panasonic Automotive will provide a more comfortable and entertainment-centric ride for passengers. 

See also Global light vehicle instrumentation and cockpits market - forecasts to 2031