Panasonic Corp. is the world's largest supplier of automotive infotainment, according to a survey by consultant IHS Automotive, with infotainment revenues estimated at $4 billion last year.
To build momentum, Panasonic is developing a new generation of head-up displays, gesture-control systems and voice recognition.
Tom Gebhardt, 53, president of Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America, described his company's plans to make infotainment systems more user friendly in an interview with Special Correspondent David Sedgwick. Highlights of the interview appear below.
Q: How much revenue growth do you expect in North America this year?
A: Year over year, we'll be right around 10 percent. Ten percent is fairly modest for us, actually. Last year, it was more than 25 percent.
What generated your growth? A couple of big contracts or the U.S economy in general?
A market recovery always helps. When your customer is doing well, you are doing well. But secondarily, we are getting more content into cars, and we are gaining some share.
Can you give more examples of added content?
Look at the audio display units we do today versus the ones we did five years ago. The display unit alone adds a lot of dollars and a lot of content. From a visual display standpoint, [the head unit] is a lot closer to being a tablet. It's like a tablet computer.
Cadillac has a capacitive display screen for its CUE infotainment system, just like an iPad.
That's our product. CUE is a perfect example. When you look at the features that have been added -- the screen, the functionality -- that adds a lot of value.
What infotainment products are generating the most revenue growth? Capacitive screens? Computer chips? Software?
The products in general are becoming software-centric, but the value of the hardware is going up, too. So we see [hardware] revenue going up because it takes more horsepower to run the software.
Automakers are struggling to make their infotainment controls easier to use. What improvements might help?
To avoid distracted driving, you really need a better voice solution. People get easily frustrated with the current voice solutions. So we are looking at the voice engine, and also at things like [reducing cabin] noise.
So you're trying to improve voice recognition by designing a quieter cockpit, a better microphone, better software?
Yes. If you [reduce] the surrounding noise and get a better microphone, those are two major issues. If you look at microphones, automakers seem to be focused on low cost. But with voice becoming more important, you're going to start investing in the microphone.
Nuance seems to have the most popular voice technology on the market. Do you work with Nuance?
We do use Nuance quite a bit. They clearly have a leg up with today's voice technology. They are the main game in town today, but there will be other solutions as you bring "the cloud" into the vehicle.
Will capacitive touch screens be the next big thing for infotainment?
Capacitive touch is really a nice technology for the moment, but it tends to make you focus a little too specifically [on the console screen].
So if you search for a virtual button on your capacitive screen, you might not see the truck in front of you?
You got it. That is definitely an offset to the advantages of capacitive touch. If you can [control your infotainment system] with gestures -- so that you don't have to take your eyes off the road -- that's one solution.
Will you have a gesture control system in production in the next two, three or four years?
Two years? Probably not. Three or four years? We're much more optimistic, although there are some challenges. For example, how specific does the gesture need to be?
Will we see gesture controls for rear-seat passengers who want to use the infotainment system?
We're hoping you'll see it in the back seat, and I think you'll see some limited use in the front seat.
Can you give some possible uses for gesture controls?
In the back seat, you can do infotainment, gaming, applications like that. If you want to keep your tablet out of your kid's hands, you might want a mounted screen. But then the kid can't reach it anymore, so gesture control is a solution to that.
What would be some front-seat uses for gesture control?
Volume control or channel seeking, and maybe even some navigation.
Automakers also seem interested in augmented reality, which requires head-up displays. Does Panasonic have any head-up technology?
Do you expect it to go into production in the next three to five years?
Will we get bigger head-up displays?
The technology will be available to make it happen. [Head-up displays] would seem to be far superior to [displays] that you could offer any other way.
Are head-up displays well-suited for functions like turn-by-turn navigation or night vision?
Yes, and even cross traffic. You'd have better vision of a vehicle coming across [your path], and better vision of anything on the side of the road.