Displays and in-mould electronics driving user experience

19th November 2020
Joe Bush

Interiors play an important role in vehicle purchasing behaviour and creating the perfect user experience is central to the effectiveness of this interior appeal. Peter Warwick, Application Manager, and Jeffrey McClintock, Automotive Business Director, from the Displays and IME team at ESI Automotive, discuss the latest trends in interiors and what this means for OEMs and Tier 1s going forward.

McClintock notes the financial crash in 2008 as a key turning point for interior styling and human machine interfaces (HMIs), after which many OEMs looked at new ways to differentiate their brand. Market survival and competition drove the trend to merge engineering functionality with appealing interior aesthetics. Style no longer had to come at the expense of functionality as OEMs and Tier 1s started to pay greater attention to interiors.

Additionally, cars are no longer seen merely as a vehicle for getting from A to B. With more people than ever before plugged in and online, cars are increasingly seen as an extension of driver’s busy lives – providing seamless interaction and engagement with the outside world through their displays and infotainment centres. The challenge for OEMs and Tier 1s however, is that consumers desire aesthetics, functionality, and safety from their HMIs, in every device from their phones to laptops to cars.

The automotive industry has historically been perceived as conservative, with limited and often infrequent new product developments when compared with other faster-paced sectors, such as consumer electronics. However, driven by these evolving expectations, the automotive industry is now leading the way by exploiting advances in electronics to enable innovative development in displays and in-mould electronics (IME).

This has caused significant disruption in the automotive interiors market as McClintock explained: “We are now seeing interiors that are pushing the boundaries of design and styling in combination with engineering functionality. Whether it is to reduce weight, save space or improve durability and reliability, the choice of materials makes it possible to satisfy both design and engineering requirements. This marks a disruption in the traditional supply chain. For example, the sourcing of rigid printed circuit boards (PCBs) would have previously occurred almost automatically. Now we can integrate electronics into the materials and the car itself, there is the opportunity to bring forward our competence and expertise from the electronics industry to enable these advanced interiors.”

Putting the user first

However, the term ‘user experience’ is still relatively new for the display and IME markets. OEMs and Tier 1s are now focusing on the ergonomics of HMI designs, for instance with familiar smartphone display features to swipe or slide rather than pressing a mechanical button. Smooth, curved, 3D sculpted surfaces that are pleasant to the touch are increasingly being incorporated into car interiors to further add enjoyment to the user experience.

Peter Warwick expanded: “It’s about making sure that the capacitive touch switches are where you intuitively expect them to be, through the clever design of channels, and that when your fingers slide over the surface it creates a pleasant haptic feel. We are seeing a lot more OEMs consider the feel of the surface more than they did before.”

With the replacement of buttons by capacitive touch surfaces and integrated displays, striking the correct balance between user experience and safety remains a critical consideration for OEMs and Tier 1s. Designs must not only provide an intuitive user experience, they must also minimise driver distraction as much as possible – an ongoing challenge across the industry. Capacitive switches allow design engineers to implement new user interface features, such as 3D haptic features, to make it easier for drivers to manipulate the display with minimal distraction from the road.

Working together in harmony

With HMIs becoming more user-focused, there is an opportunity to create increasingly personalised displays to provide a more home-from-home driving experience. However, with the growth of multi-user cars, there may be limits to the amount of personalisation OEMs and Tier 1s are willing to implement due to the expected high levels of wear and increased number of occupants. As Warwick notes, there are many considerations, but it is ultimately about making sure that the materials are durable and harmonised, and the geometries are feasible, which requires influencing the design cycle as early as possible. Backed with a global team of experts, Warwick supports designers to make their vision a reality by evaluating designs for suitability and continuing that support at processors to ensure the best possible outcome.

Looking forward

So, what does the future look like for automotive interiors? The use of larger screens, multi-screens, and 3D screens, as well as seamless capacitive touch 3D surfaces, look likely to continue growing as consumers demand similar interfaces in their vehicles to that of their smartphones.

However, as consumer electronics are increasingly incorporated into vehicles, OEMs and Tier 1s must ensure the technology is robust enough for the automotive environment, safe enough to reduce driver distraction, and sufficiently future-proofed to act as a high-functioning display or interface throughout the lifetime of the car.

Warwick concluded: “We are fortunate to be well positioned to help address these trends, with our circuitry and assembly knowledge in the consumer electronics field coupled with our experience of formable hard-coated film requirements in the automotive industry. The key thing is being able to bridge the gap between innovation and robustness in the design aspiration and engineering reality of the automotive interiors of the future.”

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