The real world: safety and convenience take front seat

  • 05-Nov-2008 04:19 EST
New vehicles such as the 2009 Dodge Ram are increasingly being designed to provide more sophisticated infotainment options to their occupants.
When automotive and electronics industries converged on Detroit for Convergence 2008, they saw a subtle yet major shift throughout the keynotes, technical presentations, and show floor exhibits. Instead of focusing on new features, the conference theme asked the question, “Does this meet real customer needs?”

Providing features that satisfy customer demands touches many areas including wireless connectivity and the ability to customize the driving experience. The foundation of the biennial conference ­was adding features that are convenient and safe­.

A key takeaway was how to put things into a car. In the past, Convergence has always focused on what to put in. The human-machine interface (HMI) will be a critical factor in determining how many features and functions are added to the vehicle. HMIs can be the difference between features that are appreciated and those that languish.

What is occurring in the consumer-products arena is prompting many changes in new vehicles. Ease of use becomes even more important in vehicles driven on busy roadways and at high speeds to minimize driver distraction.

Intriguing interiors
The interior of a car is arguably the most critical area that can determine whether or not owners have a positive view of their vehicles. Instrument clusters and dashboards are undergoing significant shifts as automotive designers adopt LCDs.

These programmable displays offer a major shift in appearance, letting engineers alter the appearance of displays as the status of the car changes. They can make critical alerts larger, or even replace the speedometer with a rear camera view when the car is in reverse.

In the future, engineers will not be the only ones who can change the appearance of interiors. Owners will be able to change what they want to see—within legal limits.

Customers may be able to arrange the cluster the way they want. Some people might want a big speedometer and no tachometer, while someone else may make the tach larger and shrink the speedometer, for instance. There probably will be some control for the center stack, configuring it for driver one and driver two.

Lighting is another area that engineers are using to personalize the cabin. LEDs are a key driver, making it simpler to light certain areas.

In some designs, sensors trigger lights when someone’s hand comes near a cupholder or storage area. There is also an effort to provide lighting systems that change depending on the environment the driver is creating. “Companies are also looking at things like mood lighting,” said Frank Homan, Vice President for Interior Electronics Solutions at Continental. “If you put on classical music, LEDs will go white. If you put on hip-hop, they will go to more colors. Subtle changes in terms of atmosphere and mood can make the car feel more like a living room.”

Radios are also undergoing a significant appearance change. When radio information is displayed on multifunction LCDs, the radio itself can be buried deeply in the dashboard. Knobs and push buttons no longer have to be physically linked to radios; wires carry the signals as the driver makes changes.

“Companies are separating the electronic boxes from interior surfaces. That lets OEMs personalize for brand recognition, offering three or four versions, each branded with a different interior design,” Homan said.

Creating my space
One thing that has become extremely clear in recent years is that drivers want to bring in consumer electronics that let them personalize their automotive space. In today’s connected world, there is an increasing demand to bring in Internet data that make driving less stressful and/or more enjoyable.

“Telematics will be an answer to address safety, security, and traffic congestion while keeping driving fun,” said Mike Bryars, Senior Manager for Infotainment and Telematics at Freescale Semiconductor.

Though the market does not go far beyond OnStar today, that is expected to change fairly quickly.

Most observers feel that this type of connectivity will become a standard feature quite rapidly, with exponential growth over the next few years. Telematics could be the price of entry in the future.

With the exception of General Motors’ OnStar, telematics will be implemented through partnerships. Chrysler has tapped Hughes Telematics and BMW has linked up with ATX, for example.

While these companies provide the necessary hardware, most observers feel that success will hinge largely on providing data that are pertinent to this environment. Services will have to focus on things that drivers want, such as traffic congestion updates and alternative routes.

“The industry needs to create frequent relevancy, providing content that users will pay for month after month,” said Thilo Koslowski, Vice President, Automotive, Gartner Inc. “They also need to avoid duplication. If it’s the same as they get on their cell phones, why pay to get it in the car?”

Koslowski expects rapid growth for telematics. By 2012, he predicts almost 60 million vehicles worldwide will have some telematic links. Other analysts are equally bullish on the quick adoption of this technology. Phil Magney, Principal Analyst at the Telematics Research Group, predicts that 80% of the vehicles on the road will have some telematic link by 2020.

Ease of integration and ease of use will be critical for the success of telematics. The infrastructure of the car will have to facilitate telematics, incorporating screens, user interfaces, and power suppliers, among other technologies. Another enabler will be the cellular technology most companies will use to get data to cars. Fourth-generation cellular technology may well be important for providing more robust telematics. The 2.5- and 3-G technologies of today are not as robust, which has a major impact on the mobile automotive market.
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