Hot trends in automotive infotainment

by John Leblanc . Apr 08 2016
Richard Drew / The Associated PressThe Lincoln Navigator Concept is loaded with infotainment features for the driver and passengers.

Richard Drew / The Associated Press

The Lincoln Navigator Concept is loaded with infotainment features for the driver and passengers.

NEW YORK — Horsepower and sexy styling are the main headliners at any major auto show and this year’s New York Auto Show was no different.

Debuts included the 565-horsepower Nissan GT-R and the sleek 2017 Audi R8 Spyder. But you don’t have to be at the show long to see that infotainment has become one of the most disruptive trends in new vehicles, from the most expensive to the least.

For a growing number of consumers, how their next new vehicle will entertain and inform them is more important than what’s under the hood or what the car looks like.

According to U.S.-based IHS Automotive, over the next five years, features such as steering-wheel controls, speech recognition, gesture control and touch screens will be the big vehicle-infotainment trends, many of which were on display in the Big Apple.

Just as screens have proliferated in our homes and offices (think smartphones, tablets, big-screen televisions and computer monitors), they are also becoming the main tool for new vehicles to inform and interact with their occupants. The growth of digital screens in cars is one of the biggest trends in infotainment, causing the disappearance of traditional buttons, dials and instrumentation.

One screen-filled vehicle is the new Lincoln Navigator Concept. The full-size SUV not only has a plethora of screens at the front of its cockpit for the driver and front passenger to interact with, but also a large monitor for each of its four rear passengers to access entertainment and information.

But it is not only futuristic concepts that sport more screens than a multiplex theatre: production vehicles are popping up with a raft of digital screens in their cabins.

Take, for example, the Audi R8 Spyder. Its new, all-digital Virtual Cockpit is centred on a 312-millimetre TFT driver display that combines the functions of a central monitor and conventional instrument cluster in a single display. Depending on the driver’s wishes, the Virtual Cockpit can be configured in either a “classic” view (circular instrument dials for the speedometer and tachometer) or the “infotainment mode” (navigation system, telephone, Audi Connect and media).

This all-digital instrumentation is not limited just to Audi’s flagship supercar. Other models, including this year’s new-generation A4 compact sedan, TT sports car and Q7 crossover, can be equipped with the Virtual Cockpit feature.

Car designers have been moving controls to steering wheels for years, but the cluttered look can be distracting. To fix that, the Volkswagen BUDD-e Concept electric van has a multi-function steering wheel with a flat surface. Instead of individual buttons, the BUDD-e steering wheel’s functions are activated by pressure — or haptic feedback — that VW says “pre-senses” what the driver is requesting, making for a much cleaner look and feel.

While Volkswagen’s form of gesture control is in a concept vehicle, BMW’s new 2017 7 Series luxury sedan is one of the first production vehicles to offer full-on gesture control.

Fifteen years after BMW’s revolutionary iDrive central infotainment controller debuted, the German automaker is taking in-car controls to the next level in its flagship 7 sedan.

Using three-dimensional sensors that monitor the user’s finger movements near the vehicle’s large central-dash screen, it can lower or raise the BMW’s infotainment volume and accept or reject incoming phone calls without having to touch a button or dial.

Don’t worry, Luddites, BMW hasn’t abandoned traditional vehicle controls completely.

With gesture control, the 7 Series offers six ways for the driver to interact with the vehicle: iDrive, touch screen, gesture recognition, touchpad, voice input and download-to-car for navigation routes.

Of course, many of these new infotainment trends are being introduced in high-end vehicles before they trickle down to more mainstream cars.

But if you haven’t been in a new-vehicle showroom for a few years, you may be surprised at the infotainment revolution, even in some of the least expensive cars you can buy.

One of the best examples of the democratization of infotainment in new cars debuted in New York.

With an expected starting price of under $15,000, the 2017 Chevrolet Sonic subcompact sedan and hatchback is one of the least-expensive new vehicles you can buy. But that doesn’t mean those buyers should be left out of the latest in-vehicle infotainment trends.

As part of its refresh for 2017, the new Sonic gets a large infotainment screen in its dash, able to support the latest features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The small Chevy will also offer 4G LTE compatibility with Wi-Fi hot spot that allows passengers to connect up to seven compatible devices, such as smartphones and laptops.

When it comes to the latest in infotainment trends, automakers are realizing that buyers at every price level don’t want to be left behind.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016