One area of focus is on touch screens.
"They generally pay for their own space with their ability to locate some of the other functions on them, such as station-preset buttons for audio systems," says Greg Lang, national product planning manager for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. But Lang says BMW's iDrive illustrates the problem of over-endowing screens. IDrive, he says, has "a complicated menu structure."
Operating touch screens should not demand too much driver attention or the distraction could dwarf concerns about the safety of in-vehicle cell-phone use. A related challenge is where to position the screens.
"In the perfect world, the navigation system wants to be high on the dashboard so there's not much distance between it and the IP," says Intier's Hager. "But there are issues with reflections and the sun washing out the screen, so that it's easy to read and can be read in any conditions."
Some look to voice-recognition as a panacea, enabling designers to get rid of many manual controls. But there are challenges.
"We also need to look at the optimal balance between visual displays and voice cues to lead to safe management of information coming in to the driver," says Jim Geschke, vice president of electronics integration for Johnson Controls Inc. Radio volume, for example, should remain something that the operator controls by hand, he said.
Campbell says that, rather than take a piecemeal approach to building the instrument panel, he's returning to the basics "not of minimalism but of more logic," where designers prioritize the functions that drivers need and design from there. As a result, he says, Nissan might end up with "a focal point as simple as a 'power on' switch, or maybe just four points near the center of the dashboard" that might be accessed by a mouse-like device.
Dale Buss is a free-lance writer in Detroit