As the smartphones in our pockets and tablets on our desks have rocketed forward in recent years, the screens in our cars – so-called “infotainment systems” – haven’t really kept pace.
Though there are good reasons for this, which we recently delved into. Automakers are still acutely aware of the technological lag time between cars and personal communication devices. And delightfully for us, they’re keen to close the gap … or simply eliminate the gap altogether.
While in Switzerland for the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month, I had a chance to sit down with a few of industry’s tech and design leaders to discuss just where the world of in-car infotainment is headed and how automakers are solving the pesky problem of infotainment screen integration.
As it turns out, screens won’t be getting bigger — they’ll be disappearing.
Designing around screens
Both Luc Donckerwolke, Director of Design at Bentley, and Audi Design Chief Marc Lichte independently admitted to me that they have both struggled with designing vehicle interiors around infotainment screens. Screens are, as Donckerwolke puts it, “old-fashioned, black rectangles” that immediately dominate and compromise any evocative and distinctive design.
It makes sense: Screens — or similar technology — immediately date a car. Perfectly emphasizing that point, Donckerwolke recalled during our discussion the 1976 Aston Martin Lagonda. Though undoubtedly beautiful for its time, it featured a cutting-edge LED dashboard and touchpad controls, which, according to Donckerwolke, weren’t yet ready for production.
The choice to implement the technology might have captured the public’s attention the world over, but it also relegated the Lagonda to becoming a relic of ‘70s science fiction, rather than a timeless design showpiece. This is the sort of dilemma facing automotive designers to this day, especially for brands like Audi and Bentley, which are both keen to remain timeless – inside and out.
If fouling a design weren’t problem enough, obsolescence is another hurdle facing designers. “Due to production lag time, there will be two generations of iPhone before we can bring any car to market, which I think is a weak point for the future,” Donckerwolke admitted.
“Due to production lag time, there will be two generations of iPhone before we can bring any car to market.”
Accordingly, both designers and their teams have worked to remedy this issue with new design concepts, each with a distinctive solution. Lichte’s Prologue and Donckerwolke’s EXP 10 Speed 6, which aim to achieve drastically divergent goals, both incorporate curved screens in the center console. It’s this curvature that brings more of a natural and organic flow to the lines of the cabin.
Lichte believes a screen cannot be allowed to dominate or dictate an interior design. “That’s why we said, ‘no,’” Lichte excitedly added. “We have to integrate them into the architecture of the interior – almost invisible.”
Simply hiding the screens within the lines of the interior isn’t a long-term solution for either designer, however. Exactly how the two designers aim to seamlessly include future infotainment technology in their cars is as different as the brands they shape.
No screens at all
For Lichte and Audi, the evolution of interior infotainment has been diverse. Rather than simply slapping a big screen into the center console, the German automaker has implemented two distinctive technologies: Virtual Cockpit and Audi Tablet.
Though clever and certainly more visually appealing than a Tesla-like tablet in the dash, neither is indicative of the direction the brand is headed for the future. Instead, Lichte sees screens giving way to projection.
“In two or three generations, cars don’t have screens anymore,” Lichte predicts. “Everything will be projected.” The technological concept of projecting information onto a vehicle’s glass isn’t revolutionary, though, as many new cars offer head-up display (HUD) as an optional extra. In fact, General Motors pioneered it in the 1990s.
More over, Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has been playing with taking the technology from a small portion of the windshield to encompassing the whole greenhouse for around a year now. It has shown concepts of HUD-like “smart glass” technologies in its Discovery Concept Vision and the laser-projected augmented reality in its XE that projects point of interest and detailed navigation directions out into the world ahead.
“In two or three generations, cars don’t have screens anymore; everything will be projected.”
When I prodded JLR about the future of the technology, though, its representatives admitted widespread laser projection augmented reality is held back by both the size of the projectors and the heat they put off.
The solution is one that makes sense for the Audi brand, as it is an automaker that prides itself in its technology.
For Bentley, a far more luxury-obsessed brand, Donckerwolke sees a different solution. Instead of further integrating screens into his interior designs or implementing projection and augmented reality, he’d rather infotainment be controlled by the owner’s personal smartphone or similar device.
While perhaps not as techy, Donckerwolke’s solution makes sense. After all, do lasers, leather, and wood truly go hand-in-hand?
“I’d much rather have something where you could plug in your communication interface and not have any onboard instruments,” Donckerwolke said. “A screen is always a trip to the past.”
Rather than lasers or smart glass, Bentley prefers to instead invest in old-world materials like increased use of wood and 3D-printed steel and copper, as we saw with the EXP 10 Speed 6, which bring the car’s cabins closer to that of their pre-infotainment predecessors.
Not only are the mental images of laser-augmented reality and smart glass fun to conjure, so too are the visions of automotive interiors unencumbered by screens. We could see a new renaissance of car cabins, much like we had in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when interior designs weren’t dictated simply by features but by visual dynamics, themes, and aesthetics — mostly rocketships.
It is sort of antithetical to think to that cars, in order to become more tech savvy, need to break away from screens altogether … but it’s true. In a few generations, your car could offer more engaging infotainment in a more natural way, leaving the living space layout to be influenced by refinement and comfort rather than a black rectangle.
Automakers may never be able to catch up — and keep up – with tech firms like Apple and Google. Frankly, trying to would be a waste of energy anyhow. Instead, shifting to a technology that compliments consumer tech, rather than competing with it, will allow carmakers to what they do best: design and build evocative and awe-inspiring vehicles.