Understanding Automotive Infotainment (IVI) and Digital Cockpit Systems

Date: October 21, 2019

Author: PathPartnerTech

Infotainment or IVI (In-vehicle infotainment) systems have come a long way since antiquated cassette and AUX players. Until the last decade, CD player, USBs, and Bluetooth connectivity were considered to be the must-have features in automotive infotainment. As user expectations evolved, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto made their way into vehicles and provided more smartphone-like experiences wherein users were able to use certain apps that were already in their smartphones, such as maps, music players and browsers. These mirroring features have now penetrated mass-market vehicles, making them an expected bare minimum rather than a unique feature in cars. With consumers using more sophisticated apps on their smartphones, they are expecting the same in their cars. This is driving automotive OEMs and tier 1s to transform the traditional infotainment systems to more immersive digital cockpit experiences.

Futuristic car cabin with advanced infotainment / IVI features

The journey from a traditional Infotainment System to a Digital Cockpit

Modern-day cars come with a host of safety features (termed as ADAS, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) as well as autonomous driving capabilities. The ability of modern cars to communicate with other cars as well as infrastructure is enabling predictive maintenance features along with essential safety features. which help in predictive maintenance and traffic monitoring systems. In these cases, a car’s infotainment system is not just an entertainment system. In fact, it needs to work seamlessly with these safety systems and deliver an enhanced user experience to the driver.

With the job of handling all these important functions, cars need multiple screens, intuitive HMIs as well as supporting processing centres. This can be seen in a few of the latest cars which have traded-off traditional mechanical instrument clusters to a digital screen which not only displays speed and rev counter but also important information such as vehicle telemetry and navigation assistance.

All these systems - IVI (infotainment system), RSE (rear seat entertainment), HUD (heads- up display), and instrument cluster - put together form a modern-day digital cockpit system.

Head unit

The head unit in a car is a primary screen or an interface that users see as soon as they enter the car. Cars are already equipped with mirroring functions like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. They are also being equipped with a dedicated e-Sim for connected car applications, wherein features like, maps, etc. are remotely controlled by a smartphone app. However, with so many features in a standalone system, it is required to boot up as soon the user enters the car, to overcome the delay that is expected with such a feature-rich head unit. One needs to use a system that can boot up with all the important features it supports as soon as possible, enhancing the overall user experience. Like here

RSE or Rear-Seat Entertainment unit for rear-seat passengers

Modern cars are not neglecting rear-seat passengers in terms of entertainment options. Headrests of front passenger seats house a dedicated screen for each passenger in the back. These systems act as an individual entertainment system for each rear passenger. These features are rich with dedicated media player mirroring options from Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. They also display a host of vehicle telemetry along with things like surround view with the help of cameras placed across the body of the car.

Heads-up display

One of the latest add-ons to make the life of a driver simpler is a heads-up display. These displays are a piece of transparent glass that is placed above the steering wheel (seen only by the driver). At the bottom of this setup, one can see a projector system that projects information on to the glass. Vital information like maps, speed of the vehicle, etc. is displayed. These projectors come with distortion algorithms to make sure the displayed info is visible only to the driver.

Digital instrument cluster

Head-units are no longer the only digital display in a car. Conventional instrument clusters that shows speed and tachometer in a car are transitioning into high-resolution screens with switchable windows customizable by the user. These displays take up the same space as a conventional instrument cluster and the screens also double up as a secondary screen showcasing maps and vehicle telemetry.

The technology running Automotive Digital Cockpit Systems

The previous section sheds light on various components that make a digital cockpit system. There are a lot of components in the background that are responsible for seamless working and enhanced HMI.

Key infotainment platforms:

Leading semiconductor manufacturers have multiple platforms supporting automotive domains. The most commonly used platforms for digital cockpit systems include

  • NXP’s i.MX6, i.MX8
  • Texas Instruments’ J6x, J7x
  • Qualcomm’s 820a, 8155
  • Renesas’ RCar M3/H3
  • MediaTek’s MT2712
  • Broadcom’s BCM89x
  • Nvidia’s TX2 and many more

Operating systems:

Operating systems in a digital cockpit system are based on Linux, Android or QNX.

ECU Consolidation:

Traditionally, vehicle ECUs were designed to perform a single function such as power window, ABS, etc. However, with the evolution of the digital cockpit and multiple screens, ECU consolidation is fast becoming the norm. We are moving away from fixed-function ECUs to software-defined ECUs. This makes it easier to add and upgrade to new features without changing underlying hardware.

Fastboot or boot time optimization-

As the boundary between physical and digital worlds disappears, users are demanding enhanced user experience across all forms of digital interaction – smartphones, IVI systems, gaming consoles, and others. The devices they use are complex embedded systems based on Linux, Windows or Android with excruciatingly long boot-up times which directly impacts the user experience. As the complexity of modern devices spirals upwards, it becomes more and more challenging to boot-up these devices swiftly, while enabling all the key functionalities for which users desire instant gratification. A fastboot enablement sometimes uses a hypervisor-based system to load the system at a faster rate compared to any cold boot. Read more about fastboot here.

Smartphone Connectivity:

Using phones in cars while driving is never recommended. As a result, there is a need for a connectivity solution for phones. Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, Mirrorlink, etc. are used to facilitate seamless phone integration.

Network protocol support:

With many screens catering to the driver as well as passenger entertainment, there are always issues that arise with data transmission across all the screens. LVDS protocol is a key protocol for such data transmission. However, ethernet is gaining a lot of traction for its faster transmission speed and convenience.

What the Future holds for Automotive Infotainment System

Automotive infotainment and digital cockpit system will be evolving a lot in the near future, with new features like gesture control, driver monitoring system, passenger detection (cabin monitoring using camera/radar).

Gesture control will be next big add on to the infotainment systems, wherein users will be able to input various commands without actually taking their eyes off the road to operate the buttons or screen. There are numerous techniques that will be facilitating among those radar is pegged to be the most preferred solution for gesture recognition.

Driver monitoring systems will be mandated by vehicle safety regulatory bodies like EuroNCAP. These systems help in not only identifying the driver but also in monitoring facial features to determine driver In-attention.

Cabin monitoring or passenger detection helps in identifying any left-out passengers (kids or pets) in the backseat. This application is done using mmWave Radar technology which can clearly differentiate living and non-living things inside the car cabin.

To conclude infotainment system in a car is no longer just a media player, with autonomous driving capabilities kicking in, cars will have the ability to serve as a personal entertainment centre on wheels for many in the coming years.

Further reading

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