NICK GIBBS

Tablet-sized touchscreens ready to go mainstream

Nick Gibbs is UK Correspondent at Automotive News Europe.Nick Gibbs is UK Correspondent at Automotive News Europe.
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Tablet-sized in-car touchscreens are poised to go mainstream. Volkswagen and Volvo will use the Geneva auto show to present their plans to make pinch and swipe gestures as common in the car as they are on an iPad. So far only Tesla's Model S has delivered the smooth, glassy slickness of consumer tablets on a dashboard. Volvo's Estate Concept features a large touchscreen that it says will be fitted to all its new cars starting with the XC90 later this year. VW fit a removable tablet in the center console of its T-ROC subcompact SUV concept.

But is an embedded touchscreen tablet really going to be the norm from now on? Volvo is convinced it is. The firm describes its screen as "groundbreaking" and says the removal of button and switches is "like being freed from handcuffs." Operations for systems like the heating controls are grouped in a tile format that Volvo says is easy to read and safe to use.

Others disagree. Premium German carmakers have so far shunned even simple touchscreens and the reason is surprising. "Germans don't like fingerprints," said Derek Kuhn, the head of sales and marketing for QNX, the Canadian tech giant supplying the operating architecture behind many in-car infotainment systems.

As Kuhn notes, German premium brands like to position their screens beyond arm's length and put control of functions in a wheel positioned between the driver and passenger. The latest from Audi and BMW include a writing-recognition function, while Mercedes has a touch-sensitive controller on its latest C class.

Another advantage of a screen without a touch function is that it can be positioned up high and set back. That means the driver doesn't need to refocus vision quite as much to read it, making it safer to use.

Some automakers are continuing their research to find other ways to avoid using touchscreens. Audi's latest screen, to be revealed in the new TT sports car at the Geneva show, sits out of fingers' way behind the steering wheel. And Kuhn at QNX revealed that his firm is working with one automaker on gesture recognition, so a swipe of hand in front of the dash is all that's needed to move to the next music track.

The problem for carmakers is the broad appeal of iPads and other consumer tablets. Reproducing that in the car could be the perfect way to gain an edge over rivals, sticky fingerprints or not.

You can reach Nick Gibbs at ngibbs@crain.com.

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