Advances in consumer electronic devices such as cell phones and laptops are changing drivers' perceptions about the design of information technology in vehicles. As a result, the days of the cloned radio and two levels of interior trim may already be history.
Simply put, just as consumers can customize their phones, drivers will have more ways to make their cars' interiors reflect their personal tastes.
"There's a lot of cross-fertilization between consumer electronics and automotive these days," says Len Poole, global technical services manager at AkzoNobel Specialty Plastics Coatings, a unit of the Netherlands' AkzoNobel NV. "The interface between the two is becoming more similar because people want to have the same experience with their car's radio or navigation display as they do with their cell phone."
A few years ago, radio bezels, climate controls and other displays and dials in the instrument panel center cluster were typically cloned across a platform of vehicles, sometimes even crossing brands. Today, they are often unique to a vehicle nameplate.
But in one respect, consumers' ability to customize their interiors will be limited. Consumers want increased connectivity, but that presents a challenge to car designers. Increased integration of interactivity in a car must not compromise passenger safety by creating a source of distraction
A new Ford Motor Co. instrument panel technology, MyFord, is an offshoot of the greater integration of technology in people's lives outside the car, says Gary Braddock, Ford's interior chief designer.
Certain common yet distracting tasks such as dialing a phone number or changing the temperature setting can be done by voice command. "This technology is all about a safer way to use interactive devices in a car," Braddock says. MyFord is debuting on the 2011 Ford Edge.
Johnson Controls Inc.'s new customizable extended instrument panel cluster "gives the driver the information he or she wants, where they want," says Rodger Eich, manager of the company's electronic design studio.
The display screen for the extended cluster has been displaced from the traditional center stack area to a point higher in the sight line of the driver. Radio and climate controls are directly attached to a seat wing on the driver's side, eliminating reaching and freeing up space on the instrument panel.
Additionally, a smaller, primary display screen is located where a tachometer or speedometer traditionally is found: directly in front of the driver. Information can be moved from the secondary to the primary screen when it becomes more critical for viewing, such as turn-by-turn navigation as one nears a destination.
Johnson Controls has displayed the extended instrument-panel cluster in its re3 concept vehicle at a number of auto shows over the past year. Everything in the concept is ready for production or co-development. Eich says interest is keen.
Cell phone colors
Color and graphics are assuming greater importance in the quest for more customized IT.
"Some of the colors and textures used in cell phones are making their way into auto IP clusters," says Tom Miller, interior R&D manager at Red Spot Paint and Varnish Co., a supplier of paint that can be etched by laser to decorate knobs and controls.
Miller reports that the domestic automakers are ahead of import brands' U.S. manufacturing operations in offering consumers a wider palette of colors.
The aftermarket for customizing instrument panels and interiors also is growing, with some automakers offering upgrade kits through dealers. AkzoNobel's Poole says, "People are holding on to their cars longer now, so one consolation [for those who don't buy a new vehicle as often as they might like] is that you can refresh your interior in year three."