Designers have been trying to devise a center console screen that could display infotainment apps without distracting the motorist.
Audi's solution: Ditch the screen altogether.
At the International CES show last month in Las Vegas, the German automaker showed a concept cockpit for the next-generation Audi TT that had no center console screen.
All infotainment functions -- including navigation, music and phone numbers -- along with a virtual speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, etc. were displayed on a screen behind the steering wheel.
In case anyone missed the point, the Audi Allroad Shooting Brake concept, which debuted last month at the Detroit auto show, also lacks a center console screen. All infotainment apps are displayed on the instrument cluster's screen, as they are in the TT concept cockpit.
The digital display is intended "to give drivers as much information as possible right in front of them," Audi spokesman Brad Stertz wrote in an e-mail. Cockpits with a digital instrument cluster -- but no center console screen -- are "something that will be seen in driver-focused sports cars," Stertz wrote.
Translation: If you're going to drive fast, we want you to look at the road, not your console.
There are signs that Audi's approach is gaining traction. Two leading infotainment suppliers, Visteon Corp. and Panasonic, recently unveiled concept cockpits that lack center console screens.
Visteon says it has a customer in 2016 for a behind-the-wheel infotainment screen that it unveiled at International CES.
And at the Detroit auto show, Panasonic introduced its Smart Instrument Cluster, which displays all infotainment functions on a digital screen behind the steering wheel. The only controls on the console are three climate control knobs.
By ditching the center screen, automakers can save enough money to cover the cost of adding head-up display, said James Grace, Panasonic's director of advanced engineering.
A digital instrument cluster combined with a head-up display should satisfy the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has introduced voluntary guidelines calling for touch-screen tasks to take motorists' attention for no more than two seconds at a time and 12 seconds total.
Moreover, Panasonic's customer research has shown that motorists prefer the infotainment display behind the steering wheel, where they can easily glance at the road or screen.
"If the car is moving, people stop caring about the center stack and want to see everything in the instrument cluster," Grace said.
"We used that as the inspiration for our interior."
At International CES, Visteon introduced a digital cluster, dubbed LightScape, that eliminates the need for a center console screen. Visteon's LightScape has a 12.3-inch screen, which is the same size as the TT concept cockpit display.
In a press release, Visteon disclosed that an unnamed European automaker will put LightScape into production in 2016, but company spokesman Jim Fisher says it won't be Audi.
Will center console screens disappear entirely? Probably not, Audi says.
"In our future sedans, SUVs, etc. we will still have some kind of center display," Stertz wrote.
But you may see fewer center console screens in sports cars, where driver inattention can be lethal, and in entry-level vehicles, where ditching the center console screen can cut costs.