With TRW touch pad, drivers write commands to cut distraction
TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. has introduced an infotainment touch pad that can be molded onto the surface of a vehicle's armrest, steering wheel or dashboard.
The touch pad, similar to the finger pad on a laptop that controls the cursor, allows motorists to write numbers or letters with their fingers to issue instructions for the navigation system, radio, smartphone and other infotainment functions.
Touch pads began drawing attention in 2010, when Audi introduced a unit designed by Harman Becker Automotive Systems Inc. with a touch pad for Audi's MMI Touch infotainment system in the 2011 A7 and A8.
In March, Audi unveiled a redesigned A3 with an updated version of the touch pad. The A3's touch pad is on the flat top of the infotainment control knob on the center console.
Harman Becker's touch pad, which now is embedded on the top of the infotainment control dial, uses capacitive sensors to detect a user's touch and interpret the finger swipes. For instance, a driver who wants to call home writes the phone number's numerals on the pad until the computer recognizes it.
Capacitive sensors gained popularity after Apple adapted them for the iPhone.
TRW, a global producer of electronics, brakes and occupant safety systems, and other suppliers are scrambling to stay on the cutting edge of the fast-evolving infotainment segment.
Harman Becker offered a glimpse of the stakes involved on March 6, when it announced a $1.3 billion contract to produce infotainment systems for the Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3 and Skoda Octavia.
To get a piece of the action, TRW is taking the touch pad concept a step further with a unit that can be molded into a curved surface. Because it doesn't have to be flat, the touch pad can be placed wherever the vehicle's designer wants.
"We can place these sensors under all kinds of curved surfaces," says Frank Koch, the advanced engineering manager for TRW's body control systems. "And we can even put them into transparent surfaces, not just black surfaces."
The most logical location for a touch pad would be the vehicle's center armrest or steering wheel, Koch said. The idea is to position the pad where the motorist's hands are likely to rest, so the driver doesn't have to reach for it.
The flexible design would allow automakers to install additional units for passengers. "We can put these touch pads all over the car, instead of just one for the driver," Koch said. "We can have them for the rear passengers."
Harman Becker's touch pad, in the redesigned Audi A3, is embedded on the top of the infotainment control dial.
TRW has secured development contracts from unnamed automakers for its touch pad, Koch said.
Koch argues that touch pads will gain favor over traditional alphanumeric controls, in which drivers take their eyes off the road to punch in letters and numbers on a small keyboard on the center stack screen.
Research by TRW and the University of Munich has shown that a touch pad reduced "driving deviations," such as drifting out of a lane, by 78 percent compared with an alphanumeric input.
The touch pad also may prove to be an attractive alternative to voice recognition technology, Koch says.
Voice technology got a boost when Apple rolled out its Siri software in the iPhone 4S, which allows conversational commands. But Siri relies on the computational power of the "cloud," which is unavailable in vehicles on some remote roads.
Moreover, interior vehicle noise can still interfere with voice commands. Industrywide, only 30 percent of motorists use voice recognition in vehicles that offer it, Koch said.
"If you don't get [a successful voice command] the first or second time, you don't use it anymore," Koch said.
Another potential advantage to touch pads: They could allow automakers to eliminate some switches on the instrument panel, which would reduce clutter.
Look for automakers to experiment with touch pads and other alternatives to voice technology. "There's a lot going on," Koch said. "Everybody wants to be first."
You can reach David Sedgwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.