Bill Fluharty wants to build a futuristic, high-tech dashboard that even a grandmother would love. So the vice-president for industrial design at instrument and control-systems giant Johnson Controls (JCI) in Milwaukee helped put together the 3e, a bulbous concept car unveiled at the 2004 North America Auto Show in Detroit last January, according to Business Week.
This car's dash has only one dial, a speedometer. The rest of the myriad lights, gauges, and dials that one finds in most vehicles today have been merged into a single flat-screen digital control panel.At the display's base is one large knob big enough to be easily grasped by an arthritic, shaking hand. Want to see how much fuel is in the tank? Just turn the knob to bring up a menu, which includes a virtual gas gauge. One tap or twist and a computer-generated image of that gauge fills the screen — big enough to penetrate the thickest bifocals.Johnson Controls is hardly alone in the quest to create dashboards and control systems better suited to aging drivers. All the carmakers and major equipment suppliers are looking at the graying of America and planning systems to suit baby boomer needs. Part of what's driving them is an increasing body of research showing that making cars easier to handle for older drivers will also help younger drivers.Drivers would likely appreciate simplification as the trend to ever more car electronics is making the dashboard a dizzying experience. From climate control for individual seats to stereo systems that can accommodate MP3 players with 2,000 songs to GPS navigation systems, vehicle cockpits have come to resemble those found in fighter jets.According to some in the industry, this features barrage, particularly in luxury models, has long since reached a point of information overload. "As cars become more and more complex, what do you do with the controls? The average driver isn't a 747 pilot. It's someone who wants to drive to Safeway and buy bottled water," says Joseph DiNucci, a senior vice-president for sales and marketing at Immersion (IMMR).Complicating matters is the ongoing switch from mechanical to digital control systems, a process that dramatically changes the feel of driving. While mechanical steering affords a driver a physical link to the wheels and the road, electronic-steering systems eliminate those sensations and take away road feel. For instance, if a driver hits a slippery patch of road, the steering would not feel any different than on normal, dry pavement.More and more, though, automakers are focusing on building control systems that don't require a driver to look away from the road to check the dashboard. These new systems will communicate with the driver either through sound or touch. Carmakers believe that this will alleviate existing visual overload and allow drivers to focus on the main task at hand. According to Johnson Controls' Fluharty, the average driver can take his eyes off the road for only 1.5 seconds before a panic reflex kicks in. Older drivers, who require more time to take in visual cues, can absorb even less information during this brief interval than younger drivers.That's why most auto makers are busily enhancing the voice-recognition systems they're building into their luxury models. In early September, Honda announced that it would include new IBM-powered voice recognition in three 2005 models. It will be an option priced at $2,000 for the Odyssey minivan and the Acura MDX sport utility and a standard feature on the Acura RL sedan. The system will recognize 700 different types of commands and will hold a database containing 1.2 million places and street names.Voice recognition will supposedly allow drivers to ask the car normal questions and give it commands in conversational sentences. Such systems are relatively rare in cars but that could change. Carmakers sold about 2 million voice-recognition systems in the U.S. in 2003, according to Telematics Research Group, an auto technology consulting firm. That number is expected to surpass 11 million by 2010 as the cost of voice recognition declines to a fraction of its current $500 to $1,000 per car.Carmakers are also exploring tactile-feedback systems that use the sense of touch and vibrations felt by the back, foot, or arm to communicate information. Such systems could, for example, simulate the road feel of mechanical steering in cars with electronic-steering systems. A sensor in the electronic system would record that the road was slippery and instruct the steering wheel to give off a looser, shakier feel to let the driver know what's happening.