Car dashboards to become 'virtual cockpits'

WEB_PHOTO_DASHBOARD_01072017

A 'SmartCore' dashboard is seen at the technical center of U.S. automotive supplier Visteon in Karlsruhe, Germany June 23, 2017.

A 'SmartCore' dashboard is seen at the technical center of U.S. automotive supplier Visteon in Karlsruhe, Germany June 23, 2017.

WEB_PHOTO_DASHBOARD_01072017

A 'SmartCore' dashboard is seen at the technical center of U.S. automotive supplier Visteon in Karlsruhe, Germany June 23, 2017.

A 'SmartCore' dashboard is seen at the technical center of U.S. automotive supplier Visteon in Karlsruhe, Germany June 23, 2017.

SAN FRANCISCO - Peer at the instrument panel on your new car and you may find sleek digital gauges and multicoloured screens. But a glimpse behind the dashboard could reveal what US auto supplier Visteon Corp (VC.N) found: a mess.

As automotive cockpits become crammed with ever more digital features such as navigation and entertainment systems, the electronics holding it all together have become a rat's nest of components made by different parts makers.

Now the race is on to clean up the clutter.

Visteon is among a slew of suppliers aiming to make dashboard innards simpler, cheaper and lighter as the industry accelerates toward a so-called virtual cockpit - an all-digital dashboard that will help usher in the era of self-driving cars.

What is at stake is a piece of the $37-billion (R408-billion) cockpit electronics market, estimated by research firm IHS Markit to nearly double to $62 billion by 2022. Accounting firm PwC estimates that electronics could account for up to 20 percent of a car's value in the next two years, up from 13 percent in 2015.

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Meanwhile, the number of suppliers for those components is likely to dwindle as automakers look to work with fewer companies capable of doing more, according to Mark Boyadjis, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit.

"The complexity of engineering ten different systems from ten different suppliers is no longer something an automaker wants to do," Boyadjis said.

He estimates manufacturers eventually will work with two to three cockpit suppliers for each model, down from six to 10 today.

Digital makeover 

One of Visteon's solutions is a computer module dubbed "SmartCore." This cockpit domain controller operates a vehicle's instrument cluster, infotainment system and other features, all on the same tiny piece of silicon.

Visteon is going all in on cockpit electronics, having shed its remaining automotive climate and interiors businesses in 2016. The bet so far is paying off. The company secured $1.5 billion in new business in the first quarter, helped by growth in China. Visteon's stock price is up more than 50 percent over the past year.

"You have to be changing and adapting fast. If not, you're not going to keep up in this market," said Tim Yerdon, Visteon's head of global marketing. "It's about reinventing yourself to stay ahead."

Cheaper, lighter, smarter

Cockpit electronics can also help with fuel efficiency. That's because vehicles are lighter when there are fewer behind-the-scenes computers, known as electronic control units (ECUs). Vehicles today contain 80 to 120 ECUs, numbers expected to fall sharply in coming years.

But perhaps the biggest motivation for fancy cockpits is sales. Drivers accustomed to the seamless technology of their smartphones are finding today's dashboard offerings clunky and non-intuitive. A J.D. Power study released this month found the most complaints from new vehicle owners stemmed from audio, communications, entertainment and maps systems.

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Better cockpits could prove crucial to attracting younger consumers, who are not showing the same enthusiasm for cars, or even driving, that their parents did. Research company Mintel found that 41 percent of millennial car buyers are interested in having the latest technology in their vehicles.

Disjointed dashboards "are one of the most noticeable gaps in user experience - what you see right in front of you," said Andrew Hart of UK-based consultancy SBD Automotive.

On many car models, he said, audible warning systems to alert the driver to a potential collision are not in sync with the radio, meaning your favourite song could drown out the warning beep.

"That's a crazy example of something when you don't consolidate ECUs," Hart said.

Industry watchers say this and other safe-driving features are among the systems ripe for integration. Additional targets include rear-seat entertainment systems and so-called heads-up displays that project data such as the car's speed onto the windshield for easy viewing.