With the trend of increased adoption of consumer electronics in the automotive industry, the design of the center console is undergoing a major shift. This article covers some of the emerging trends which are finding increasing adoption in the center console—technologies that not only provide a seamless human machine interface (HMI) for when a passenger uses a cell phone or the car navigation unit, but also enable automobile manufacturers to save money, improve reliability, and create a shift in the aesthetics of the car.
With greater emphasis being placed on the user experience and an increased need for design differentiation, automotive HMI has gone through a paradigm shift and is taking the user experience to a new level. The center interior console has a display and control switches for infotainment, HVAC, communication modules, and other functions. It is an essential component of an automobile interior as it consolidates access to these systems and provides the user with all the relevant information required for an enhanced and controlled driving experience.
Traditionally center consoles have been a stack-up of infotainment and HVAC modules with mechanical control switches on relatively flat plastic overlay. These modules work independently of each other, have different design formats, and utilize separate communication channels. To implement this architecture, there are dedicated companies supporting car manufacturers for one or more of these modules. Consumers also have the option of buying these modules separately from aftermarket distributors.
Some of the components generally incorporated in center console include:
HVAC (Heating Ventilating & Air Conditioning): Controls inside car temperature, humidity, and air flow, thus making sure that these parameters remain under desired limits.
: Implemented through an LCD screen embedded in the center console. Aids in navigation of the automobile from one place to another.
: CD/DVD music player, generally equipped with the latest technologies like MP3, USB, etc.
Park Assist System
: An optional safety system in high demand. Assists the driver in parking maneuvers where visibility is restricted.
The emerging center console
With the availability of advanced technologies coupled with increased focus on the human machine interface aspect of console design, a change is being ushered into the design model of center consoles. Technologies prevalent in the consumer space are being adopted for the automotive environment and are enabling engineers and designers greater freedom in design of the console.
The "brick" model above of stacking individual, independent modules is now giving way to a more HMI-centric, integrated design model. This design model distributes control panels (HMI centric) separately from the actual electro-mechanical unit of each center console element. Such a design methodology enables designers to focus on the actual HMI of the center console as a whole without having to interface with individual discrete components and create an integrated look and feel. This concept is illustrated in the diagram and explained below.
The brick design model
In the brick design, each center console component is a complete unit comprised of the controls/switch panel as well as the actual electromechanical box. For example, a center console is composed of a number of independent components including the HVAC, audio, and navigation units, and each unit is a complete system comprising the controls, electronic components, mechanical actuators, etc. This design approach enables a distributed development amongst tier one suppliers with each one specializing in one or more of the individual components. The car manufacturer is responsible for integrating each system in the center console almost independently of each other.
The limitations of such a design methodology is that the car manufacturer has only limited control in being able to provide a uniform look and feel. Likewise, the component designers also have limited freedom to design center consoles with various restrictions on styling. There is also an increased cost adder to allow for tooling costs associated with additional grooves and harnesses. Due to the increased number of mechanical components, there is also an increased chance of failure.