As part of our bi-annual review of vehicle cockpits and instrumentation, Matthew Beecham talked to Doug Burcicki, senior manager, marketing and product management, Yazaki North America (YNA), and Dutch Adachi, senior manager, display technology group, electronic and instrumentation business unit, Yazaki North America, about how the company is pushing back the technical boundaries in the vehicle instrumentation arena.  

Just-auto: Superficially, the instrument cluster appears much the same today as they did 30 years ago, but I guess they have actually changed considerably in that time and are likely to change even more through this decade.  What have been the major design changes to instrument clusters during the 1990s?

YNA: “The biggest change throughout the 1990s was the trend towards multiplexed systems in vehicles.  This drove the evolution of the cluster from gathering discrete data from remote sensors – during the 1980s — to the fully digital implementations we see today.  About 30 years ago clusters were based on primitive mechanical and electro-mechanical designs whereas today the digital nature of the componentry allows for a more accurate movement mechanism as well as a greater proliferation of information, whether it is displayed through gages or displays.”

Just-auto: What are the OEMs demanding in terms of instrumentation?

YNA:  “In North America the largest focus continues to be on cost.  New technologies are expected to create value by reducing costs or are expected to provide a superior performance or design element.  Even in the cases where technology is admittedly impacting design or styling, it must be at minimal incremental value.  We refer to this as the ‘$5 wow’ [factor].  That being said a cluster is an emotional product; when executed properly it is expected to provide a feeling of delight for the customer or maybe even present a ‘fashion statement’ of the vehicle itself.  It is part of the branding of the vehicle and as such needs to be a distinguishing factor.”

Just-auto: What has your (or the OEMs) consumer research told you about what people what from their instrumentation?
YNA:  “While technology has allowed for more and more information to be displayed via the cluster the overriding desire of the customer is to keep the cluster simple.  Drivers want data to be easy to understand and want to acquire that information at a glance.  This being said, the driver still wants their cluster to look good.  They also want it to have a personality and be unique from the clusters in the vehicles that surround it on the road every day.”

Just-auto:  How do the requirements for instrumentation differ between customers?

YNA:  “Each OEM has a style.  Some of these styles are driven by criteria such as cost.  Other OEMs display their style through common ‘footprints’, i.e. gauges and displays are in the same locations but different appliqués, graphics and display technologies differentiate the content levels.  Some OEMs focus on the illumination of the product and focus development and spending on this area in particular while others intentionally want the cluster to be conservative and understated.  The approaches vary widely but are typically indicative of the culture of the vehicle brand itself.”

Just-auto:  Could you compare and contrast those differences on a geographical basis, i.e. Japan versus North America?

YNA:  “In all honesty there is not a clear regional delineation in regards to cluster development requirements.  That being said I think it is safe to say that North America is focused on cost effective deployments, Japan focuses on providing a perceived differentiation in their product.  However, the Japanese OEMs all attempt this via different avenues.  In Europe they tend to focus on visually impactful technologies such as materials, appliqué printing techniques and display properties.”

Just-auto: What added value does YNA bring to the vehicle’s cockpit?

YNA:  “Yazaki has an overall awareness of driver interaction with the cluster and associated cockpit environment.  Even though Yazaki does not compete in certain product areas, such as entertainment and HVAC, we study the usage of these systems and their impacts on the driver.  We use this analysis as an input into many of our design concepts.  We conduct these studies via labs at our facilities in North America and Japan and deploy the findings globally.

In addition to this we are on the forefront of many technological developments, such as OLED application, metallic appliqué, digital printing, optical fold imagery and Hud – just to name a few.”

Just-auto: For some time, we’ve seen cockpit designers working on ways in which to display more information yet make the dash appear less complex.  As we see it, 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 sophisticated mobile multimedia systems, as well as safety and security items suggest that this part of the interior is still in its infancy in terms of development.  How do you see that development evolving?

YNA:  “Obviously the systems that are driving the changes in cluster properties are infotainment and active safety systems.  The OEMs are constantly in search of the perfect balance of audio, visual and tactile feedback so the driver interprets critical versus ancillary information in a safe manner which does not contribute to driver distraction.  With the introduction of so much feature content in the vehicle it has become quite easy to overload the driver with non-essential information, in order to ensure this is not the case, we make use of our HMI [human machine interface] labs and participate in technical communities where studies are conducted and recommendations made, often these results evolve into NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] standards.”

Just-auto:  Another trend, if you like, is the apparent desire for a spacious interior, something always equated with luxury.  We’re seeing that prompting interior designers to use new combinations of electronics and mechanical functions to modify or move pre-existing systems like heating/cooling and audio facilities. What are you seeing there?

YNA:  “Instrumentation is not directly impacted in the sense that few would claim their cluster makes the vehicle more spacious.  However, where the gauges are located has an impact on this sensation.  For example, some prefer secondary gages or information to be located at the top of the centre stack or the centre of the instrument panel, while others feel that more content in the centre console area ‘squeezes’ them into a cockpit-like environment.  Regardless, the underlying technologies are the same.”

Just-auto:  Can we expect to see more touch-screens in our cars to offer space-saving possibilities?  But how then does that square with the problem of distracting the driver’s attention too much? 

YNA:  “The benefit of touch screens is that the same real estate can be utilized as the HMI for multiple subsystems, such as HVAC, audio, and navigation.  Touch screens are prevalent in Europe and Japan and this is because of the popularity of navigation systems in these regions, realistically, they are just about the only way to input the level of information these systems require, other than voice.

One aspect of touch screens that is not popular, particularly in NA, is they lack tactile feedback, thus making them non-optimal for ‘blind’ operations.  As a result you will often find their functionality is duplicated via hard/soft switches thus the true benefits of the real estate savings are not realized.  Another challenge to touch screens is the ‘depth’ of the menu, if not structured properly instead of simplifying the HMI they complicate it and frustrate the users.”

Just-auto: Is voice recognition the answer to that in order to eliminate many controls that have traditionally been manually operated?

YNA:  “In a perfect world, yes, but in reality the error rate is still too high for most consumers and this results in a level of frustration thus unpopularity.  Tremendous progress has been made over the past five years but there are still a couple of issues slowing the adoption of this technology, the first being cost – it takes a lot of processing power [via software and hardware] to address echo cancellation, noise filtering and improved recognition rates.  Also the systems of today need the users to speak in an unnatural manner through the use of keywords rather than in a natural linguistic manner; you have to learn to speak in a specific way in order to get the system to execute your commands reliably.”

Just-auto: While conventional displays and gauges incorporate back-lit panels with incandescent lamps as light sources, and pointers that have been treated with phosphorescent additives to glow in the dark, is there still a major shift toward the greater use of LEDs as light sources?  What do you see happening there?

YNA:  “Today 90% of clusters are lit with LEDs, the applications that make use of phosphorescence are niche applications and still require a primary light source such as LEDs.  The use of LEDs will continue to grow as more color variants become affordable enough to be applied to the automotive environment and this is mainly due to the light efficiency, design flexibility and life of the product.”

Just-auto: We’ve also heard that there is a trend toward the increasing use of self-illuminating displays based on organic and inorganic materials which eliminate the need for separate back-lighting. To what extent do you see this happening in North America?

YNA:  “EL [Electroluminescent] backlighting has been in North American applications for ten years and will continue to be used for some time to come as an established technology.  The drawback to this approach is the limited visibility in direct sunlight but this can be addressed through shrouds or ‘light limiting’ design approaches.  However, these sometimes have negative styling tradeoffs that need to be balanced against each other.  One of the benefits of EL is that it is printed thus assuring a uniform appearance.”

Just-auto: Another notable trend is to position the instruments at the centre of the dashboard, partly for stylistic reasons and partly for safety reasons.  As we see it, the trend started in Europe with the new Mini and BMW Z8 and spread to the Toyota Yaris and Smart and is now appearing in the US.  Would you agree? What do you see happening in the US market?

YNA:  “This is still a rather small set of vehicles that are utilising this approach and I believe the data showing it as a ‘safety’ improvement is rather subjective.  It really seems to be a design initiative intended to differentiate the vehicle more than anything else.  In fact some vehicles that were doing this have redesigned the instrument panel altogether and are going with the traditional placement of the instruments directly in front of the driver and this is a direct result of the styling not be readily accepted by the consumer.  Regardless, as with any ‘bold’ initiative it has had some success and some failures.”

Just-auto:  Another change in recent years is that we have seen instrument clusters become increasingly connected to vehicle local area networks (LAN) to share information with other electronic control units, which enhance electronic control of the instrument clusters.  Is this widespread in North America or still a niche application?

YNA:  “Yes, it is almost impossible to find a modern cluster that is not communicating via the vehicle network.  It goes without saying that since most electronic nodes in the vehicle are communicating with each other via multiplexing, the cluster, which displays information provided by these module will do so via multiplexing as well.”

Just-auto: How is the product technology evolving?  Are you seeing perhaps more toward reconfigurable displays, moving away from analogue?  What will tomorrow’s instrumentation offer?

YNA: “Yes, more displays with ‘flexible’ data are being utilised in today’s vehicle as opposed to ‘fixed’ displays or gauges which were dedicated to a particular piece of data.  Right now we are seeing a trend towards full graphical displays which ultimately will allow the user to configure what data and how it is shown.  These implementations are showing up on high end vehicles first because of the price points associated with the software and hardware required to drive the graphics.  In addition, with touch screens and HMI in general there is both a challenge and an opportunity in determining how best to utilize this capability in an efficient manner that doesn’t overload the driver.”

Just-auto: The cockpit module has evolved since the 1980s starting with the instrument panel.  How do you see it evolving through this decade?

YNA: “The major area of focus in regards to the cockpit is in developing the most efficient and effective HMI between the driver and the vehicle subsystems.  As we all know the level of feature functionality is going to continue to increase and we are now seeing the advent of active safety systems which, at times, can take over control of the vehicle – how is this managed in a manner that the user feels comfortable with and trusts.  These decisions will have a huge impact on the ergonomics and associated designs as well as styling of the cockpit for years to come.”

More: Global market review of vehicle instrumentation and cockpits – forecasts to 2012