The center stack needn't be the center of attention.
Over the years, automakers have given their center-stack display screens vast acreage and loaded them with 3D maps and touch-sensitive controls. But in an effort to get drivers' eyes back on the road -- or in that general direction -- interior designers are working on how to concentrate more of a vehicle's critical information in the driver's line of sight -- that is, on the instrument cluster and head-up display.
Audi took things to an extreme with the redesigned TT, which doesn't even have a center-console screen. All information such as route maps, music selections, phone numbers -- and, yes, the vehicle's speed -- is displayed on the TT's instrument cluster.
For other vehicles, suppliers such as Panasonic and Visteon are developing head-up display/instrument cluster combos that de-emphasize the center-console displays. Both companies have lined up contracts for "smart" instrument clusters, and both will showcase their wares next month at the International CES consumer electronics expo in Las Vegas.
Visteon, which dubs itself the world's largest producer of instrument clusters, has taken steps to position itself for next-generation displays. Earlier this year, the company acquired Johnson Controls' electronics unit, which has a portfolio of inexpensive "combiner" head-up displays. With those displays, the information is shown on a clear glass slab mounted behind the steering wheel.
Visteon's system, dubbed Fusion, packages the instrument cluster, head-up display and center-console screen as a single system, controlled by a single multicore processor. Visteon has a contract to produce Fusion for an unidentified automaker in 2018, said Martin Thall, president of Visteon Electronics, a unit of Visteon Corp. Renesas Electronics Corp. will supply the processor.
Thall says the market for combination head-up displays is growing rapidly. "For a B or a C car, it gives the cost-conscious car owner something to show and share" with friends, Thall said.
Panasonic is promoting comparable technology -- dubbed e-Cockpit -- that coordinates the infotainment displayed on a vehicle's center console, instrument cluster and head-up display unit. The key is to route the most potentially distracting information, such as an incoming phone call, through the head-up unit, so that the driver doesn't need to swing over to the center console.
"We want to keep people's eyes on the road," said Scott Kirchner, chief technical officer at Panasonic Automotive Systems.
However, Panasonic's real innovation may turn out to be its reinvention of car radio. At the CES show, Panasonic will introduce the next-generation version of its Aupeo streaming radio service.
The new version, Aupeo Personal Radio, uses algorithms to learn the motorist's likes and dislikes. The driver can use a smartphone or tablet app at home to select what he or she wants to listen to -- such as music, news, talk radio, weather -- with an option to mix different formats and content providers together. Those preferences are then relayed to the car via the cloud.
For example, the motorist might want a mix of 80 percent news, 10 percent weather and 10 percent traffic updates. Aupeo tailors the broadcast accordingly. During the drive, motorists can indicate that they "like" or "dislike" particular news segments with the push of a button to further fine-tune the personalization.
The previous version of Aupeo was available mostly in Europe, according to Aupeo CEO David Taylor. Now, Panasonic is preparing to launch Aupeo as a personalized radio feature in the U.S., Taylor said. Panasonic expects that Aupeo will have an estimated 5 million users worldwide as of next month.
The idea is to allow the motorist to enjoy a variety of media options without having to change stations, or switch between content providers, so that streaming radio doesn't become a new distraction, Taylor said during a Dec. 16 media briefing in Farmington Hills, Mich.
"The answer isn't to replicate the smartphone," Taylor said, "but to provide the experience that the motorist wants."