What’s the fewest number of physical controls we need in a modern car? Twenty? Thirty? Forty, even?
More. And, in the case of luxury cars, much more. The most recent BMW 6 Series features 85 such controls reachable from the driver’s seat. I know this because I’ve just counted them. So even in a car as skillfully set up for the driver as the 6 Series is there’s a bewildering array of near-identical switchgear splattered over the dashboard, steering wheel and centre console. Intuitive? No. Pretty? The opposite. Safe? Definitely not.
Thankfully this excessive trend won’t last. Harman, whose audio and infotainment systems currently call over 25 million vehicles home, is working on two technologies that will vastly simplify automotive interior design without sacrificing the arsenal of appliances that we all now demand. The aim is make increasingly complex infotainment systems fantastically easy and safe use as well as nicer (i.e. more subtle) to look at.
One technology Harman is developing you’re probably mildly acquainted with, and there’s undoubtedly plenty of room for improvement with voice recognition software. The other – gesture recognition – will be more foreign to most. It also looks set to reinvent the concept of the ‘human-machine interface’, or HMI, which currently pertains principally to buttons, switches and touchscreens.
We’ve already looked at how Harman can manipulate how both occupants and pedestrians perceive electric vehicles, but these equally avant-garde technologies are now starting to impact the fundamental design of car interiors. And how we interact with them.
You can look but you can’t touch
When we talk about gesture recognition it’s easy to imagine flailing limbs and general frustration at a machine’s inability to understand own our tiny gestural idiosyncrasies. An augmented equivalent to pressing the same button on a TV remote progressively harder. And still nothing happens.
Bringing technology to market half-baked isn’t something Harman are in the habit of doing, however. It’s likely that any GR software that makes its way into the top end of automotive market would begin with near-perfect calibration for larger movements – raising a hand up and down to control speaker volume, for example – but would soon evolve to include facial and hand gestures.
How about switching the radio off with just a wink for insouciance?
The tangible trace of GR equipment is small. Harman’s demonstrators use an infrared sensor, manifested as a disc that's around an inch-and-a -half in diameter, mounted on the transmission tunnel. It might as well not be there at all, but can currently be used to switch tracks (with a flick of the wrist) or change volume (by moving your hand up and down above the sensor). Just how much GR can replace conventional controls is ambiguous. Answering the phone by making the now well-known hand gesture is one thing, but operating the handbrake is another. Time will tell.
Everything on the two screens can be controlled by either the click wheel or the small infrared sensor hiding just behind it. There's currenlt a very slight lag between gestures being made and the system picking them up and executing the correpsonding command, but improvements are fast in this field.
The implications of gesture recognition go further than operating a car's infotainment system and a vehicles interior aesthetic. Less switchgear means less surface complications, which opens the door to new materials. The aforementioned BMW 6 Series makes use of high quality plastics, milled aluminium, polished aluminium, leather and never-ending stitching to upholster the transmission tunnel alone. Replacing the many controls with infrared sensors would allow designers a - literally - blank canvas to substitute the plethora of hyper-processed materials with more environmentally friendly textiles or fabrics without detriment to the car’s luxury feel.
An extreme but feasible example is recycled newspapers carved into forms. Peugeot put this relatively new material – which unsurprisingly resembles wood – to good use in the Onyx concept, using it for the entire dashboard. It’s obvious, after to seeing the car, that this would have been considerably more difficult to install had the Onyx’s interior been festooned with switchgear.
Harman’s gesture recognition will facilitate low carbon alternatives to existing interior materials by making it easy and cheap for manufacturers to implement them.
The smooth, devolved interior surfaces permitted by using GR technology instead of traditional switchgear will encourage the use of low carbon, recycled materials such as the 'newspaper wood' from the Peugeot Onyx concept.
Examples of GR technology at Harman’s Engineering Centre in Karlsbad are already working with reasonable ease, although dialing out unintentional gestures and calibrating the system for different markets (flamboyant drivers in Latin countries will undoubtedly stretch the technology to its limit) will take some time. Harman reckon it will be two or three years before we see any real advances fitted to production cars. By then, eco-friendly veneers, hemp-based fabrics and carbon neutral leathers, to name but a few, will have come on a long way.
It’s hardly surprising that progressive technology such as GR will increasingly dictate car design. That it will probably allow interior designers more freedom to explore form and experiment with new, ecologically sound materials is perhaps unexpected and certainly encouraging.
And what about Harman's most well-known field of expertise? Having experienced a prototype version of the QuantumLogic surround sound system with an added third dimension, it can't make it into production cars soon enough. 'Crystal clear' doesn't even begin to do it justice, even more so given the awkward acoustic properties of a car interior. Designers will just have to find a way to disguise those roof mounted speakers...
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