Open to Opportunity in Functionality & Connectivity @ Conti

In just over 100 years, the interfaces on vehicles have gone from a simple needle on a numbered dial to a plethora of information.

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In October 1902, a man named Otto Schulze registered the eddy-current speedometer at the patent office in Berlin.

Which leads Helmut Matschi, head of the Interior Div. of Continental Automotive (continental-automotive.com), to remark that they’ve been working on and studying human-machine interfaces for about 110 years now.

Arguably, Schulze would be knocked back on his heels were he to see the proliferation of information that is now part of the instrumentation and communication functions that are found in even low trim level cars.

Matschi points out that in the not-too-distant past, the information provided to the driver had to do with the condition of the car—it is driving this fast; the check engine light says something is wrong; the illuminated light shape indicates the high-beams are on.

Now, however, it is about monitoring, as well, such as lane-keeping assist telling the driver where she’s keeping within the lane markers; adaptive cruise control reporting back on the speed relative to the vehicle ahead.

“As we move closer to automated driving,” Matschi says, “we want to know if the system is in command and control. This means we need to provide additional information to the driver.”

And he adds, “More things will come”

So this means that the human-machine interface—a.k.a., the instrument panel—is something that is going to become all the more critical in vehicles. While people want and need some information, there are limits to the amount of information that can be displayed before it becomes confusing or meaningless.

“The head of our human-machine interface activities is not a hardware guy, nor is he a software guy. He’s a psychologist,” Matschi says.

Talking of the way that the interfaces and systems are developed, Matschi says, “We grew up when OEMs were doing the specifications. When it comes to instrument clusters, it is usually the technical functions that are done by specification, but the design and appearance are very dynamic. I can hardly remember one product that stayed the same from sourcing to start of production.”

And they learned about infotain-ment and connectivity—things well beyond gauges that show speed and revs and oil pressure and such—and about how the consumer electronics industry was bringing out products at a pace that was leaving automotive in the dust.

Matschi says their strategy is based on three main pillars: the human-machine interface, to inform the driver; connectivity (he says they have 26-million tele-matics control units on the road, which is a lot of connectivity); and systems integration, which, he explains, allows them to lower installed costs.

And while he stresses that there is a broad product portfolio within Continental itself, they’ve worked to become capable of working with various architectures and partitions, with their specialization being in functions.

He cites, for example, that they developed an open infotainment program. This means that when an OEM customer wants, say, Apple CarPlay, it is readily handled.

While it may be tempting to have a proprietary system, Matschi points out, “Proprietary systems run into a dead end—fast.”

He explains, “We’ve used the term ‘open’ for many years because we knew once we placed chips on one solution, we’d only have a narrow opportunity. If we bet on one area, might win—but for a limited time. No one can predict fully what will come. But things within a vehicle need to be integrated.

“Our role is integrating things into vehicles independent of what’s coming. We like this current period of time because we can be flexible. More is changing, which requires more systems integration. There’s never been such a variety of operating systems and demands for multimodal or connectivity.”

He points out that this demand is going to accelerate as it is anticipated that in 2017 there will be more vehicles being produced with telematics capability than without. And as there is a transition from 4G to 5G, there will be sufficient data band width and reduced latency times such that it won’t be necessary for every function to be running on board a vehicle. “The dynamics of connected systems are becoming larger,” he points out.

And to think it was just once all about a magnet affixed to the end of a rotating cable that created a torque that turned a cup that moved a spring-loaded needle . . .