User interfaces becoming big differentiators

  • 24-Sep-2013 08:58 EDT

HMIs will have to become far more sophisticated to let drivers manage multiple options while avoiding accidents.

Body styling, color, and engine power may have to start sharing their role as key differentiators with yet another vehicle attribute—the human-machine interface (HMI). A growing number of companies are focusing on HMIs amidst predictions that more car buyers will make decisions based on these electronic controls.

“The HMI is ultimately how carmakers will differentiate themselves in the future; that’s also how consumers will differentiate,” said Thilo Koslowski, Automotive Vice President for Gartner Inc.

The interfaces, which will run on the radio head unit, must offer a range of capabilities. They must let users interact with a number of features including apps. These interactions will help set the tone for the brand, providing a distinct look and feel.

Ease of use is mandatory to help minimize driver distraction. Additionally, HMIs must help automotive systems keep pace with the rapid advances of consumer electronics over the lifetime of the vehicle.

“The core infotainment challenge is driver distraction; systems have to be easy to use,” said Steve Surhigh, Vice President of Automotive Solutions for Compuware Professional Services. “OEMs also want a custom branding experience, it can’t be an out-of-the-box HMI or something that’s just like a mobile device. The system also has to allow for upgrades without visits to dealers.”

Companies throughout the supply chain are racing to build their presence in this critical area, often through joint agreements. For example, Pelagicore and Elektrobit recently teamed up to build a software platform for Genivi-based infotainment systems. Rightware and Visteon jointly developed an HMI with real-time graphical user interfaces.

In June, Green Hills Software (GHS) and Altia Inc. teamed up, making Altia's graphical user interface design tools and the GHS Integrity real-time operating system fully compatible. That will make it easier for developers to consolidate real-time graphical clusters with Linux or Android-based head units on a single automotive applications processor, according to Dan Mender, Business Development Director at GHS.

Having powerful microcontrollers that can handle a number of tasks simultaneously will be a necessity. Radio head units will have to handle navigation, telephone streams, radio, and apps. Drivers will want to switch from one to another seamlessly. That’s forcing radio head unit developers to use state-of-the-art microcontrollers.

“Head units today have very limited CPU capabilities and limited memory, as well as limited connectivity to the cloud,” Surhigh said. “The next generation, around model year 2016, will provide substantial upgrades that will let the system do many things at one.”

Chipmakers are responding not only by pushing up clock speeds and increasing the size of on-chip flash memory. They are also providing more graphics capabilities.

Gaming and computer specialist nVidia is now focusing on the automotive industry. Renesas Electronics rolled out its R-Car Series of automotive system-on-chip that augments its ARM processor with a 3D graphics processor for multimedia and navigation automotive systems. Freescale’s Vybrid line was designed to provide most of the software needed to develop an infotainment system that includes the HMI.

Semiconductor suppliers are also addressing other aspects of the HMI. Texas Instruments recently unveiled a piezo haptic driver device that is half the size of competitive devices. It responds to the growing demand for physical feedback for touch input displays. TI has also beefed up its dual graphics accelerators, which help power advanced displays.

“People are looking for larger, higher resolution displays that can provide 3D imagery,” said Jeff Dickhart, Product Manager for Automotive Digital Light Processing devices at TI. “Systems need to render navigation in the foreground and Pandora in the background.”

While engineers improve the ways that drivers interact with applications and infotainment options, software developers are also moving to reduce the number of those interactions. Many app providers are automatically taking the next logical step, giving users information without making them ask for it.

“When you get close to your destination, it can pull up parking information,” Surhigh said. “When the low fuel indicator comes on, the system might bring up a list of low-price gas stations in the area.”

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