Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A matter of context: How digital instrument clusters can enhance the driving experience

I always drive a manual, so checking the tachometer in my car’s instrument cluster has become second nature to me. But while I have a personal interest in what my cluster displays, why would a software company like QNX be interested in instrument clusters? After all, most clusters use physical gauges and relatively little software.

The answer, of course, is that automakers are starting to migrate to digital instrument clusters, which replace mechanical gauges with virtual instruments rendered on an LCD display. In fact, Jaguar and Land Rover, who are pioneers in this market, have been shipping QNX-based digital clusters since about 2010. Here, for instance, is a photo of the digital cluster and dash in the latest Range Rover:

So why use a large LCD display instead of mechanical gauges? For one thing, you can attract early adopters who always want the latest tech and who see large 3D displays as cool. But more importantly, a digital cluster can provide an experience that is both personal and adaptive — personal because consumers today want to control the UX (just as they customize their smartphones) and adaptive to help the driver in a variety of traffic situations.

Context matters
In the latest QNX technology concept car, for instance, the digital cluster can re-configure itself to display a 3D rear view camera to help with parking. Saab pursued similar ideas a few years ago with a context-based cluster that avoids loading the driver with too much information during night-time driving.

It will be interesting to see who takes this to the next level with an adaptive HMI that takes speed, location, and driving conditions into account. For instance, driving at high speed on a German Autobahn differs immensely from driving at low speed on a busy downtown street with lots of pedestrians and intersections. These two scenarios place different demands on the driver, and a digital cluster could adapt accordingly.

On the autobahn, the cluster could increase the size of the speedometer and tachometer to make them easier to see, while hiding other information that isn’t currently needed. (The cluster would, of course, still display any necessary warnings, such as high oil temperature.) In the city, meanwhile, the cluster could replace the tachometer with pedestrian warnings to improve the driver's situational awareness.

Also, think of a car that supports both automatic and manual gear-shifting. A driver who prefers automatic might not be interested in a tachometer, whereas a driver who shifts manually will want to see a RPM readout to optimize gear shifting. A digital cluster could accommodate both preferences.

For safety’s sake
What does it mean from a safety perspective to include a large display and its attendant electronics in the car? A malfunctioning digital cluster can’t directly kill or injure, but it could give false indications that may lead to an accident. That is why automakers will likely have to address ISO 26262 requirements for their digital clusters.

So what is ISO 26262? It’s a standard that focuses on functional safety in cars and other types of passenger vehicles, with the goal of avoiding or controlling system failures. It is similar in content and purpose to the IEC 61508 functional safety standard, to which two QNX OS products have already been certified. Read our previous posts (here and here) for more information on ISO 26262.

Massive arrays
When it comes to digital clusters, I’ve only scratched the surface. For instance, cars are becoming massive sensor arrays that generate tons of data. By leveraging this data, reconfigurable clusters could display contextually relevant information, such as highlighting a person in your path, an accident up ahead, or the current speed limit.

And from the automaker’s perspective, a digital cluster could help reduce costs by allowing the same hardware to be used across multiple vehicle lines; in many cases, only the graphics would need to be “reskinned.”

Emil Dautovic is an automotive business development manager at QNX Software Systems, where he is responsible for the European automotive market.

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