Next-gen dashboards get Tegra 2, Moblin, Atom, we go hands-on

Tim Stevens
T. Stevens|01.14.10

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Next-gen dashboards get Tegra 2, Moblin, Atom, we go hands-on
Intel Atom processors, capacitive touchscreens, NVIDIA Tegra 2 graphics, Moblin installs... sounds like a suite of hot next-gen ultra-portables, right? Think again. Those are just some of the technologies used in the dashboards of cars that will be appearing on showrooms in the coming months and years, dashes that were largely on display at CES -- minus the cars themselves, usually. There we were treated to mobile glimpses of Google Earth, Pandora, and Slacker Radio on the go, plus the ability to lock and unlock your car via Ye Olde Internets. It's the future, and it's coming soon, so click on through already and get a sneak peek.

Ford's MyFord and Sync updates

First up, and closest to reality, is MyFord. It's an integrated infotainment system like the rest, utilizing your cellphone to serve it data and integrating nicely with a suite of apps that will, with any luck, flood all the major application stores. We already provided our impressions of the tech at some length so we won't blather on about it too much here, but suffice it to say that this is not only one of the most impressive implementations that we saw at the show, but Ford's approach of applying this to all of the company's vehicles is encouraging. That it's launching on the 2011 Focus, a value-minded auto, shows the blue oval hasn't forgotten that pleasing the masses is what got it to where it is today. Yes, we realize that because of this corporate direction Ford may not be the most exciting marque on the planet, but as of now it offers the highest-tech systems available in a mass-produced car -- a fact that we're still trying to get our heads around.

Audi's 3G MMI and Google Earth integration

Audi's Multi Media Interface, or MMI, may not have been all things to all people when it launched, but Audi has been continually improving the service over the years since its launch in 2004 to turn it into the defacto way to get your media in your Quattro. It's getting better still, with the third generation and fourth generation MMI implementations getting a boost courtesy of NVIDIA Tegra graphics, the latter adding Google Earth integration to the mix.

Naturally Audi and NVIDIA are tauting both systems' ability to enable a rich user experience while also minimizing driver distractions, which is cool, but we were more interested in how the thing performed. For the 3G MMI the experience was buttery smooth, either when scrolling around the Strip from above courtesy of the tiny joystick that's been added, or zooming all the way out until this entire great nation was visible. The default view is an isometric perspective that, up-close, includes 3D representations of buildings. Back it up a bit and the buildings go flat while the terrain starts to stand out, colored nicely such that when we were all the way back things still looked good.

The 2011 A8 will get the 4G MMI, ditching the fiddly joystick and replacing it with a small touchpad. You can use this to enter in numbers, scroll across maps, and even write letters using character recognition. The rest of the physical interface is much the same, with the major change being Google Earth integration, providing satellite view and a much nicer looking interface. The system pulls data through an integrated modem, either using a SIM card inserted into the dash or by cloning the owners' phone -- or at least it will in the European market. Exactly what Audi will do in the US remains to be seen, but the hope is to do something similarly straightforward and to avoid additional monthly fees.

It also remains to be seen when vehicles beyond the flagship A8 will get Google Earth.
Visteon does Moblin and Tegra 2

Visteon has been struggling lately, getting delisted and filing for bankruptsy, but the stunning suite of prototype dashboards on display at the show is at least promising that the company isn't giving up hope. There were plenty of current-gen dashes on display, like gorgeous LCD-based models for Range Rover and the latest Jaguar XK, but we were most interested in what's coming next, including one that had an embedded IR camera and was able to detect when a driver got drowsy. The car can then play chimes or vibrate the seat to, hopefully, open those peepers again.

Then there was the Connected Car, which is quite similar to MyFord but is Atom-powered and running Linux -- Moblin to be specific. It will run custom apps, the first on display at this point is Slacker Radio, a logical counterpoint to Ford's inclusion of Pandora. The device can also use a USB cellular modem, turn that signal around and act as a WiFi hotspot, and will nicely aggregate all media either from internal storage or external devices (connected by USB) so that you don't have to remember where you tunes are. They just play. Coolest thing? A spot on top for a PowerMat or the like so that you can wirelessly charge your device while you drive.

Then there was Advanced ICP Concept, tech that will hopefully show up in cars in the next two years. It combines a suite of soft-touch, virtual buttons and a touchscreen, all of which not only react to touch but also react to a sweep, meaning you can scroll through albums by simply waving your hand around. Similarly the dash lights up near your hand as it hovers over, and it looks great -- if you really hate physical buttons and controls.

Finally, there was the pièce de résistance: the Next Generation Cockpit concept. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take any images of it, but it was powered using NVIDIA's Tegra 2 chipset, which quite predictably gives some phenomenal graphics performance for Open GL ES 3D navigation, also delivering some particularly flash dials and gauges. It can even spit high-def media to displays in the dash and in the back seats, simultaneously. Right now the system was just showing a loop, flinging information about in a way that would send most drivers into a seizure (or a ditch), but naturally things will be much simpler when it hits production -- in a few years.
Hughes Telematics' vision of a future Benz

You may not have heard of Hughes Telematics before, but this offshoot of the great Hughes empire provides the tech that, amongst other things, powers Mercedes' latest mbrace technology, Benz's response to OnStar. The company was proud of its new iPhone and BlackBerry apps, allowing users to locate and unlock their cars remotely. But that's not all, announcing its own advanced infotainment system for the car called Next Gen Telematics.

Right now the tech is still in its infancy, with a very simple interface and a USB Griffin PowerMate as a controller. But, the potential is there, showing off the ability to pull in media from external sources, read RSS feeds, and again stream Slacker Radio, preferred by some thanks to its ability to cache tunes locally.

Of all the systems we saw, none are as close to production as Ford's. That you'll be able to get MyFord in your next Focus is great news, as is word that current users will be getting Sync updates to enable control of apps on smartphones by voice. You're not long from having your Twitter feed read to you while on the go.

We know what you're probably thinking: all these distractions can't do good things for drivers. These companies are thinking that too. At the CES opening keynote, Ford's VP of Product Development Derrick Kuzak cited test results indicating it took 4.9 seconds for someone to queue up a playlist using Sync versus 30 seconds for those using "manual activation" (i.e. swapping CDs, looking up something on a smartphone, etc.). Of those two drivers, only the Sync pilot never took his eyes off the road. Cooler tech and fewer distracted drivers on the road? Where do we sign?

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