Display Technology at the 2010 North American Auto Show

Modern automobiles contain a great deal of electronics, including a significant number of information displays. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last January, a showcase for the latest in autos and automotive electronics, there was no shortage of great examples of display technology at work.

by Alan Sobel

AS ANYONE WOULD EXPECT, the show had plenty of glitz – shiny cars; fancy configurations of lamps, fenders, and wheels; and pretty women – but also impressive technology. For example, instrument cluster and "infotainment" gadgetry are part of manufacturers' quests to differentiate one auto from its competitors, but there are also some sound technical reasons for at least some of the devices. The space behind the dashboard is very crowded with instruments, controls, wires, and ventilating ducts. Removing the mechanical gauges and replacing them with flat-panel displays can save space as well as enable easy changes of the instrument panels among different car lines. It is even possible for drivers to change the configuration, moving around temperature and pressure indicators, warning lights, and so forth to suit their convenience. Of course, this can lead to confusion if different drivers of the same car have different preferences.

Currently, most electronic displays are flat, but curved and flexible displays are coming, giving designers even more freedom to locate and configure the displays. One trend in this direction is the use of compact projectors rather than direct-view displays. While these can require greater volume behind the dash than flat panels, they make possible even more freedom to display the information on warped surfaces.

Another possibility is the use of head-up displays (HUDs), which project the information onto the windshield. These can be particularly useful in conjunction with night-vision systems. In daylight, though, symbology superimposed on the outside world may be a source of driver confusion. Although HUD technology has been around for many years and is widely employed in aircraft, it has been too expensive for much use in civilian autos. The only HUD actually seen at the show was in a Mercedes.

Most navigation displays in vehicles at the show were located in the center of the dashboard, requiring the driver to look away from the road to see and interpret the information. Volvo had a display that popped up in front of the windshield but still in the center of the dash, to the side of the driver's forward view (see Fig. 1). The small GPS that I can attach to my windshield with a suction cup is much more convenient; I put it at the bottom left of the windshield where I can read it easily, but it does not obscure the outside world.



Fig. 1: The navigation screen (top, center) pops up on the dashboard of a Volvo.


Vehicular displays do not have to be particularly fast (except for camera readouts used to see the back or blind spots), but they do have to be bright enough for daylight use and dimmable for night operation. The driver's instrument panel need not have a very wide viewing angle but a navigation display located at the center of the dash must be readable by both driver and passenger.

Major controls – shifters, mirrors, and door and window controls – are located in the same places on most automobiles, a substantial convenience for those of us who frequently drive different vehicles. There are SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) standards regarding permissible locations for displays relative to the view of the outside world, and the distances the driver must reach to operate controls. I believe that these standards are, for the most part, being followed by manufacturers.

On a similar note, the various auxiliary devices – navigation systems, satellite radios, and voice-controlled cell phones – all have the ability to distract the driver from his primary tasks of driving the vehicle and avoiding accidents. There is already much evidence – more than just anecdotal – that the use of cell phones while driving is a substantial contributor to accidents. While some of these devices may be disabled when the vehicle is in motion, for many drivers this functionality will be viewed as merely a pious notice not to use the gadget while driving – something easily ignored. We are seeing some clamor to forbid texting while driving, but texting is now only one of a number of electronic distractions competing for the driver's attention.

Technology can improve safety: anti-collision radar, automatic stability control, and automatic headlamp dimmers are just a few examples. However, some of the possible and advertised gadgetry can have dangerous consequences. We have recently seen major problems with electronic technology applied to automobiles; Toyota's recent difficulties are perhaps the outstanding example. There are, I think, two major areas of concern. The first involves mission-critical systems such as speed control that must function with complete reliability and in a fail-safe manner. Then there are the auxiliary systems, such as entertainment and navigation devices, which must be designed so that they do not interfere with the primary considerations of safety. Engineers, as well as marketers, must bear all these factors in mind. All in all, electronic displays can be used in vehicles to significantly improve the driver's operating experi-ence and improve safety – if properly deployed and tested and if they do not distract the driver from the primary task of driving. Based on this year's exhibits, the auto industry is at least paying lip service to the idea that infotainment displays should not be driver-distracting displays. •


Alan Sobel is an independent consultant, specializing in display devices and systems. He can be reached at as1285@columbia.edu or at 734/995-8414.