April 9, 2009

Next-Gen Auto Dashboards Make Quantum Leap Forward

A new generation of auto displays will soon be showing up in some of the latest car models, with the first car to have a video-only instrument panel set to debut later this year.

The new LCD displays will be able to show any image or information the car's computer can summon up.  

In the meantime, production cars such as the Ford Fusion Hybrid, which supplements physical analog gauges with LCD video screens, will be available. 

The Fusion's only physical instrument is the large, round analog speedometer in the middle of the instrument panel in front of the driver.  On both sides of the analog gauge is a 4.3-inch LCD display, which resembles a pair of iPhones incorporated into the car's dashboard.  The displays are programmed to show a wide variety of information of particular importance to hybrid car drivers, serving as somewhat of a coach on fuel-efficient driving habits.

The opposite of this scheme can be seen in the Mercedes-Benz flagship S-Class sedan, which includes a central LCD display surrounded by a traditional instrument panel. The screen's primary function is to imitate a round, analog speedometer that matches the other gauges so accurately one could easily miss the fact that the speedometer doesn't actually exist. 

During night driving conditions, the car's infrared night vision displays a view of the road ahead on the LCD screen.  The vehicle also displays a tiny, linear analog speedometer across the bottom of the infrared video image.   

However, these are only initial steps.  Soon, an unnamed European automaker will launch its vehicle that uses a 12.3-inch video screen on the dashboard instead of conventional instrumentation, according a MSNBC news report citing Visteon Corp., the company that produces the displays.

Until then, concept cars such as the Chrysler 200C are showing what the new instruments panels might look in the future. 

Brad Gieske , a visualization designer with Chrysler, demonstrated how drivers can select which information is shown using touchscreen or voice commands.  Such advanced input capabilities will likely make obsolete the quasi-mouse input devices of the BMW iDrive and others.

The Chrysler's system uses not the standard instrument controls and also those for heating, air conditioning and infotainment.   This is important because it allows the computer to display relevant information in front of the driver when it is needed, and to show it on the peripheral displays when it is not of critical concern.

"We are very excited about this," Gieske told MSNBC.  

"We feel very strongly that this is where the future is headed."

Indeed, by 2013 roughly 5 percent of new cars will have LCD-only virtual instrument panels, predicted James Farell, Visteon's senior manager of driver information platforms and advanced projects. An additional15 percent will use combination systems, using both LCD displays and physical instruments, such as those on the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, he told MSNBC.

Infinitely flexible, these screens can provide drivers information they may never have known they even wanted,  displayed in ways that are obvious although never seen before. For instance, the Fusion's display shows the RPM of the car's gas engine, indicated on a sliding vertical linear scale.  The new development is a yellow band that colors part of the scale when the car is able to run on battery electric power alone.  By driving such that the needle is kept within the yellow zone, the driver can run the car on electric power at speeds up to 47 mph without unintentionally starting the gas engine.

Another screen displays how much power the car's various accessory systems are consuming.   For example, a driver can see how much power the seat heaters or air conditioning is consuming, and decide whether it makes sense to utilize those features.

Gieske said that additional research is crucial to making this new data a reality.

"A lot of usability studies need to be done.  Designing these is not a no-brainer."

The new displays will have many advantages, but can also carry some risks.  

Having a video screen on the car's dashboard provides a place to display images from sources, such as video cameras, that provide rear views when backing up.   However, worries about legibility and potential driver distraction have kept current systems, as well as those in development, from allowing drivers to put their own images on the screen. For instance, add-ons like USB flash drives containing personal photos aren't allowed, he added.  Furthermore, the federal government firmly regulates the design of gauges to ensure their legibility.  

In the mean time, engineers are working fervently to learn what types of information can be shown and how it can best be depicted.

When designers of the Fusion wanted to use a tree metaphor to depict the driver's proficiency at fuel efficiency, tests conducted by Ford discovered the resulting forest distracted drivers.  So they altered the tree to leaves growing on vines to indicate improved fuel economy.  Drivers found the new image less distracting.

The most significant obstacle for engineers is simulating the appearance of analog gauges, with their smooth swinging pointer needles.  

"Anti-aliasing of pointer needles is critical to avoid "Ëœjaggies,' " Farell said.

"The eye can quickly tell if you have skipped a step in the pointer movement."

Image Courtesy Mercedes-Benz


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