|Elaborate testing labs like JCI’s comfort lab (above) not only test interiors for driver comfort but help in deciding the placement of devices inside the cockpit.|
Automakers are responding to the idea of additional information systems inside of vehicles, but the question is how to do it without turning the vehicle cockpit into a zone of chaos? That charge, at a number of automotive companies, is falling under a new acronym — the study of HMI, or the human machine interface.
“The whole notion of information increasing in the vehicle is an absolute fact and the industry must do something to address it,” says Jim Geschke, vice-president and general manager of electronics integration at Johnson Controls (JCI). “If not, people will just find ways to bring the information in themselves. A solution is not to say, “‘Well, there’s already too much info in the car, we’re not going to bring it in,’ because we know the consumer will find creative ways to do that themselves. And typically when the consumer does it, it’s not done in a safe manner.”
Safely integrating technology isn’t exactly something brand new. Vehicle ergonomics, packaging and styling have focused on driver “usability” for some time, albeit perhaps in a more subtle way. Today, companies like JCI have developed elaborate testing labs where simulators are used to figure out the best arrangement for all of the devices car companies want to sell to customers.
Heads-up displays can be configured to deliver traditional cluster information or highlight routes in navigation mode.
| BMW’s 7-Series uses traditional pointers over a reconfigurable display. |
One of the common agreements among most HMI pundits is that information is best served up high. That flies in the face of most cockpit arrangements in the last few years where basic driving information was in front of the steering wheel, and everything else was jammed into the center stack.
That means rethinking the typical automotive layout. It also means trying to push more information into a smaller area, which will in turn push demand for some innovative gadgets in the center cockpit. And that’s where it gets exciting. “The trend is fewer gauges,” says Bob Drury, director of engineering for driver information systems at Siemens VDO Automotive. “The big six-gauge SUV clusters are coming down to two gauges with a reconfigurable display. They typically have tachometer, speed and then subgauges, fuel and temp, recessed within those gauges all on a large reconfigurable display. They’re mounted higher in many cases than what you’ve seen in the past. The Human/Machine Interface ¡? Technology stokes both the fires of driver distraction and the solutions that keep it manageable.
Also, there will be a lot more use of center cockpit, touch screens and reconfigurable thin film transistor (TFT) displays. That’s coming very fast,” Vehicles in the pipeline will increasingly depend on reconfigurable displays for both driver-specific information and non-critical information and entertainment. Those displays let OEMs set up the layout, the menus and the information output any number of ways, and also let drivers use one or two key areas to review all of the data being circulated throughout the vehicle. Some of the first introductions of reconfigurable displays are only tentative steps.
The BMW 7-Series features a fully reconfigurable display in the gauge cluster to present speed and tachometer. But designers felt 7-Series owners would still want an analog-style system and asked Siemens VDO to drill two holes through the LED panel to accommodate the pointer stems. The Renault Espace now sports a fully digital cluster developed by JCI. With common displays in visually “friendly” areas, engineers can reduce the time drivers need to review information. Other innovations, like a tachometer that changes color as the engine revs up are also possible. But the trick is not what can be added to super-luxury vehicles, it’s making the technology affordable to high-volume, mid-market vehicles. “What we’re driving really hard right now is being able to introduce these seemingly simple concepts into the mass market,” says Drury. “Every vehicle has a budget that they need to meet and there is only so much they want to spend on a cluster, yet we want to start adding things like dot matrix displays, so you can get more functionality than you have today. Something we’re working very aggressively with our customers right now in North America is to remove cost.”
In addition to their added utility, reconfigurable displays promote design freedom, although improved heads-up-display (HUD) technology offers the same advantage and some exclusive benefits as well. In 2003, Siemens VDO Automotive’s latest HUD offering will show up on a production vehicle at the Geneva Motor Show. The company expects far better customer acceptance with the improved technology. “The thing that really gave us the quantum leap was our experience with LED illumination and its high brightness,” says Drury. “LEDs give us a nice advantage to modulate the LED very quickly to change the intensity, whereas with traditional forums of backlighting, you couldn’t do it that quickly.”
“The most important benefit is that a HUD takes less than 0.2 seconds to review information compared with 0.5 seconds on the cluster and 0.7 seconds to the center console. That is an important point at 50 km/hour — it is 40 meters,” says Gerhard Wesner, CEO of Siemens VDO’s information systems passenger car division.
And that is the simple stuff. Imagine being able to follow directions through your HUD with the same yellow line used by pro and college football leagues to show the first down line. This technology can also be used to project information superimposed on your driving environment.
With key driver information displayed on a HUD, there is some speculation that traditional IP clusters could become redundant. OEMs already have designs on the drawing boards that specify only a HUD and not a cluster.
New displays aren’t the only emerging technologies in the field of HMI. Automakers are turning towards other human senses such as touch and sound to interface man and machine. Touch already has made it into the market, with haptic controls to scroll through system menus. The BMW 7-Series was out in front with its haptic control knob in the center of the cockpit. And as with anyone out front, the device has met with both criticism and accolades. Audi is introducing a new control in its A8 that Audi says is more on the money in terms of usability.
“How the driver controls a panel together with the type of information being displayed is very important,” says Wesner. “It is an important combination that will decide if the information is best controlled by speech or by switches or if there is a logical set of information in the display. For example, if you would like to dial a telephone number, we tested if it is better to control with a keypad or with a rotary switch that allows you to go between certain numbers.” Wesner asserts that with the rotary switch the driver has to only “know” one button and that tests show it is actually easier to learn and operate.
Speech recognition systems have been tried before but the industry is back with better technology and applications. “I think voice recognition technology is a big opportunity,” says Geschke. “It was out there in the late 80s, but those systems were abysmal in their effectiveness. Slowly over time that industry has improved and now it’s at a point where it’s commercially acceptable. We’re using IBM Voice. It’s a very robust system, and we’re also using a noise cancellation and echo cancellation technology to operate in a very difficult automotive environment. The soft- ware to recognize voice commands alone is not enough.”
Voice recognition gives drivers the ability to change radio volume, temperature and other basics through spoken word. But speech also allows the car to talk back. This opens up the ability to have text messages from e-mail or web content read to the driver. Navigation systems also can politely note upcoming changes in course or chastise you when you’ve shot past your exit. And as with any new opportunities, comes new potential problems.
“The hearing channel today is not so overloaded and so we have a good chance to bring some speech recognition technologies,” says Wesner. “But here also, the interface must be very carefully combined with the driver situation. For example if you are stressed out driving in the city, and then there is this tone or voice that is always coming up, this may be too much stimulation and you will become more and more nervous. One of our goals is to combine the driving situation with information from the car so in this case, as the driver speeds up, we use different sounds or different patterns for speech.”
Personalized HMI environments are another natural extension of this new technology. For example, a seasoned middle-age driver might activate the multiple information systems in a luxury car, but set it to shut down when an inexperienced or elderly driver uses the car. Another personal option would be to change the look of a cluster by downloading a new design from the Internet, plug it into the IP with a “Flash” memory stick and choose a new set of patterns, colors and styles.
Beyond the simple customization, Geschke says that another parallel automotive electronics category, X-by-wire, also will have an impact on HMI. “We’ll be developing the passenger compartment implications of that technology. For instance, as you go to steer-by-wire, the steering wheel may not be a wheel any more. The wheel is designed based on the mechanical advantage to turn an old steering system. All that can change. How it will change, we don’t know yet, but it opens up room for something dramatically different.” With the steering wheel perhaps out of the way, the entire interior structure becomes an open canvas for designers and engineers. Aided with the latest technologies, like Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLED), designers can begin to wrap and bend computer screens around surfaces, contouring information around the curve in a vehicle cockpit.
These fundamental changes in the cockpit open up new opportunities in design and layout, and subsequently new problems and issues for the HMI people to discover. But it does mean that the vehicle interior landscape may look fundamentally different for the first time in many decades. Most agree that the HMI changes we’ve seen to date are being driven from Europe, where more of the luxury marques like Mercedes, BMW, Audi and Jaguar are in a quiet arms race to equip their top-line sedans with more gadgets and electronics than the competition.
But the true test of a technology is when it comes under the scrutiny of cost-conscious drivers in the lower-and middle cost segments. Antilock-brakes were nearly universal on luxury vehicles, but floundered in the economy segments when customers were asked to pay for it as an option. Even more recently, telematics have taken a very unceremonious break from the wicked pace and projections laid down just two short years ago. “When you get down to some of these features, there is a lot of money to be made there, and no one wants to give them up,” says Chris Martinez, vice president of business development, cockpit, chassis and telematics systems at IAV Inc. “But when you look at some of these mid to higher end vehicles, if brand loyalty isn’t driving the purchase decision, OEMs discover that people are really reviewing the value of the vehicle and the value that these features have to them.
“Telematics is a perfect example. Everyone in the industry was pushing telematics as a consumer product, and in the end, consumers aren’t really driving the demand, because it doesn’t have the value that the industry perceived. Now the customer relationship management aspect of telematics has gravitated to the wireless telephone industry,” says Martinez.
Of course for every turn down the wrong road, there is an opportunity to come up with a new course of action. Siemens VDO’s Wesner says that the information consumers want may not always be onboard or part of a monthly package. He believes there is a possibility to let consumers dial up their favorite content and pay as they go instead of buying into a whole system. “If you drive each day from home to work and back, you don’t need a navigation system. But perhaps on the weekend, you are going on a trip. At this point, perhaps you could buy this data on a time-limited basis through a special phone number and a passcode. Therefore the cost is limited and you don’t need to buy a whole set of CD-ROMs or an expensive DVD. You pay less money but still get the service you need,” he says. There’s little doubt that drivers will want to see a continuing stream of features in the vehicle, and Wesner’s ideas on subscriptionbased content are no surprise for a company that is affiliated with wireless communications, data systems and other infrastructure divisions necessary to see the plan through. Whether or not consumers are willing to pay for the massive capital, R&D and ongoing costs of new data in the vehicle will probably drive the configuration of the vehicle cockpit and its information layout just as much as a proper HMI application.