EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been corrected to note that Alps Automotive Inc. provided the touchpad in the Audi A3. Harman Becker Automotive Systems Inc. integrated the touchpad into the car's infotainment system.
A new method to reduce driver distraction, the touch pad, has gained a foothold in the industry.
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 touch pad designed by Alps Electric Co. for Audi's MMI Touch infotainment system in the 2011 A7 and A8.
The A3's touch pad is on the flat top of the infotainment control knob on the center console.
Alps' touch pad 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.
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, the system integrator for Audi's infotainment system, offered a glimpse of the stakes involved in March, 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.
"We can place these sensors under all kinds of curved surfaces," says Frank Koch, advanced engineering manager for TRW's body control systems.
TRW has secured development contracts from unnamed automakers four its touch pads, 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.
Interior vehicle noise can 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."
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."