Cars of the future will host screens galore
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Cars of the future will host screens galore

Displays are spreading all over car interiors, but little attention is paid to aesthetics.

As auto manufacturers plan the future of mobility, they are sketching out radical plans for upgrading the car. A vehicle that changes colour through a coating of e-ink on its exterior panels has already been unveiled by BMW (See this Smartkem Blog). And with all new cars likely to be electric by the end of next decade, manufacturers are looking at innovative ways to enhance the driving experience.

That is likely to mean ever bigger screens in cars, and more of them. Electric vehicles are at the forefront of the revolution in the use of in-car displays. Car interiors are playing host to a growing number of screens, offering ever greater functionality.

As cars become more closely enmeshed in the digital world through internet connectivity, the range of services offered within the vehicle is growing. From watching films to playing computer games, the inside of the car could one day rival our homes for the range of entertainment on offer.

Some predict that cars will eventually sport up to 12 displays dotted around the interior for use by both drivers and passengers. And if self-driving vehicles eventually take off, in-car screens are expected to become the world’s most watched displays outside the home.

Tesla pioneered the use of giant touchscreens in cars, launching the Tesla S model in 2012 with a 17-inch touchscreen which can handle every aspect of the car’s controls, from climate control to the sunroof along with entertainment systems. Some were sceptical about a vehicle controlled from a smartphone-like touchscreen, with all buttons and knobs replaced by items chosen from a screen menu. But touchscreens seem to work every bit as well as pressing, turning and flipping buttons, switches and levers.

Other manufacturers have followed suit and have ramped up their in-car displays. Porsche will offer video streaming in its new Cayenne SUV, allowing viewing on the central display when the vehicle is stationary. When in motion, streaming will only play on passenger displays so as not to distract the driver. The rush to screens has coincided with falling prices across the display industry so installing them is no longer cost prohibitive.

Perhaps the ultimate in-car screen experience was in the Chinese-made Byton M-Byte prototype unveiled at CES 2018. This offered a gigantic 48-inch screen spanning the entire dashboard, supplemented by a 7-inch display embedded in the steering wheel. The model never made it to market. The M-Byte looked hubristic, an example of screen overkill, though it tapped into the trend for displays to dominate car interiors.

That said, not everyone is convinced that screens are the way ahead. In-car screens located near the driver could eventually be banned by regulators, some believe, as they distract drivers from keeping their eyes on the road. Instead, hologrammatic head-up displays (HUDs) can provide drivers with all the functionality they need. Head-up displays, which have been available since the 1980s, offer the driver dashboard information projected in front of the windscreen so they don’t have to take their eyes off the road when checking speed, fuel gauge or other information.

BMW is planning to launch a panoramic hologrammatic HUD that will cover the entire windscreen. Described as a “quantum leap” in design, the panoramic display allows everyone in the car to see the information displayed, even those in the back. Perhaps one day, all cars will be equipped with these hologrammatic HUDs and in-car screens will be outlawed. This seems doubtful though as it goes against the trend for more, bigger and better displays inside cars.

The use of holograms for HUDs is growing, with British firm Envisics offering a new range of augmented reality HUDs and receiving investments from manufacturers Stellantis, General Motors, Hyundai and Jaguar Land Rover.

Even so, manufacturers are still planning for a future where in-car screens are spread around the vehicle’s interior. And there is room for improvement in how the screens are presented. In-car interior designs have moved forward markedly since the angular and squared off shapes of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Interiors have become rounded and curved, smoothing out the sharp edges to become more pleasing and soothing to the eye.  The car’s dashboard and its internal panels are often made of moulded plastic. This offers the possibility that screens can be embedded into the dashboards and panels of cars rather than allowing them to stick out sharply and look like someone has clumsily wired in a PC screen.

Smartkem’s TRUFLEX® technology allows displays to be built on flexible substrates, thus enabling in-car screens to be melded into the panels and dashboards. The process allows transistors to be deposited on to a substrate using electronic inks at low temperatures. This means hard substrates made of plastic or glass are no longer necessary. Smartkem’s TRUFLEX® inks can be used on thin flexible plastics, so are ideal for displays embedded within the curves and waves of a car’s interior. This would look much more attractive than the current use of screens which rise out of the interior creating an ugly interface.

Meanwhile, the prospect of autonomous vehicles will transform the provision of in-car screens yet again. While still some way off, self-driving cars would be able to offer all-round windows giving passengers a broader view of their surroundings. Many of the in-car display systems developed today are done with an eye to a future of autonomous, or semi-autonomous driving.

The vehicles would be equipped with screens for both entertainment and working, allowing video conferencing. These displays could be embedded into the interiors as space would be at a premium.

Autonomous vehicles or otherwise, screens are likely to play a growing role in the future of the automobile. Designers should think creatively about making displays look more attractive and how to blend them unobtrusively into the car’s interiors.