QNX Software Systems has established a massive beachhead in automotive infotainment and telematics, with deployments in over 60 million cars. But it’s also moving into other growth areas of the car, including advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), multi-function displays and, of course, digital instrument clusters.
The term “digital cluster” means different things to different people. To boomers like myself, it can conjure up memories of 1980s dashboards equipped with less-than-sexy segment displays – just the thing if you want your dash to look like a calculator. Thankfully, digital clusters have come a long way. Take, for example, the slick, high-resolution cluster in the Audi TT. Designed to display everything directly in front of the driver, this QNX-powered system integrates navigation and infotainment information with traditional cluster readouts, such as speed and RPM. It’s so advanced that the folks at Audi don’t even call it a cluster – they call it virtual cockpit, instead.
(In this image, we’re retrofitting the QNX reference vehicle with a new digital cluster.)
Now here’s the thing: digital clusters require higher-end CPUs and more software than their analog predecessors, not to mention large LCD panels. So why are automakers adopting them? Several reasons come to mind:
Reusable – With a digital cluster, automakers can deploy the same hardware across multiple vehicle lines simply by reskinning the graphics.
Simple – Digital clusters can help reduce driver distraction by displaying only the information that the driver currently requires.
Scalable – Automakers can add functionality to a digital cluster by changing the software only; they don’t have to incur the cost of machining or adding new physical components.
Attractive – A digital instrument cluster can enhance the appeal of a vehicle with eye-catching graphics and features.
In addition to these benefits, the costs of high-resolution LCD panels and the CPUs needed to drive them are dropping, making digital instrument clusters an increasingly affordable alternative.
2008: The first QNX cluster
It’s no coincidence that so many automakers are using the QNX Neutrino OS in their digital clusters. For years now, QNX Software Systems has been exploring how digital clusters can enhance the driving experience and developing technologies to address the requirements of cluster developers.
Let’s start with the very first digital cluster that the QNX team created, a proof-of-concept that debuted in 2008. Despite its vintage, this cluster has several things in common with our more recent clusters — note, for example, the integrated turn-by-turn navigation instructions:
For 2008, this was pretty cool. But as an early proof-of-concept, it lacked some niceties, such as visual cues that could suggest which information is, or isn’t, currently important. For instance, in this screenshot, the gauges for fuel level, engine temperature and oil pressure all indicate normal operation, so they don’t need to be so prominent. They could, instead, be shrunk or dimmed until they need to alert the driver to a critical change – and indeed, we explored such ideas soon after we created the original design. As you’ll see, the ability to prioritize information for the driver becomes quite sophisticated in subsequent generations of our concept clusters.
Did you know? To create this 2008 cluster, QNX engineers used Adobe Flash Lite 3 and OpenGL ES.
2010: Concept cluster in a Chevrolet Corvette
Next up is the digital cluster in the first QNX technology concept car, based on a Chevrolet Corvette. If the cluster design looks familiar, it should: it’s modeled after the analog cluster that shipped in the 2010-era ‘Vettes. It’s a great example of how a digital instrument cluster can deliver state-of-the-art features, yet still honor the look-and-feel of an established brand. For example, here is the cluster in “standard” mode, showing a tachometer, just as it would in a stock Corvette:
And here it is again, but with something that you definitely wouldn’t find in a 2010 Corvette cluster – an integrated navigation app:
Did you know? The Corvette is the only QNX technology concept car that I ever got to drive.
2013: Concept cluster in a Bentley Continental GT
Next up is the digital cluster for the 2013 QNX technology concept car, based on a Bentley Continental GT. This cluster took the philosophy embodied in the Corvette cluster – honor the brand, but deliver forward-looking features – to the next level.
Are you familiar with the term Trompe-l’œil? It’s a French expression that means “deceive the eye” and it refers to art techniques that make 2D objects appear as if they are 3D objects. It’s a perfect description of the gorgeously realistic virtual gauges we created for the Bentley cluster:
Because it was digital, this cluster could morph itself on the fly. For instance, if you put the Bentley in Drive, the cluster would display a tachometer, gas gauge, temperature gauge and turn-by-turn directions – the cluster pulled these directions from the head unit’s navigation system. And if you threw the car into Reverse, the cluster would display a video feed from the car’s backup camera. The cluster also had other tricks up its digital sleeve, such as displaying information from the car’s media player.
Did you know? The Bentley came equipped with a 616 hp W12 engine that could do 0-60 mph in a little over 4 seconds. Which may explain why they never let me drive it.
2014: Concept cluster in a Mercedes CLA45 AMG
Up next is the 2014 QNX technology concept car, based on Mercedes CLA45 AMG. But before we look at its cluster, let me tell you about the Plymouth safety speedometer(which you can see in this image). Designed to curb speeding, it alerted the driver whenever he or she leaned too hard on the gas.
But here’s the thing: the speedometer made its debut in 1939. And given the limitations of 1939 technology, the speedometer couldn’t take driving conditions or the local speed limit into account. So it always displayed the same warnings at the same speeds, no matter what the speed limit.
Connectivity to the rescue! Some modern navigation systems include information on local speed limits. By connecting the CLA45’s concept cluster to the navigation system in the car’s head unit, the QNX team was able to pull this information and display it in real time on the cluster, creating a modern equivalent of Plymouth’s 1939 invention.
Look at the image below. You’ll see the local speed limit surrounded by a red circle, alerting the driver that they are breaking the limit. The cluster could also pull other information from the head unit, including turn-by-turn directions, trip information, album art and other content normally relegated to the center display:
Did you know? Our Mercedes concept car is still alive and well in Germany, and recently made an appearance at the Embedded World conference in Nuremburg.
2015: Concept cluster in a Maserati Quattroporte
Up next is the 2015 QNX technology concept car, based on a Maserati Quattroporte GTS. Like the cluster in the Mercedes, this concept cluster provided speed alerts. But it could also recommend an appropriate speed for upcoming curves and warn of obstacles on the road ahead. It even provided intelligent parking assist to help you back into tight spaces.
Here is the cluster displaying a speed alert:
And here it is again, using input from a LiDAR system to issue a forward collision warning:
Did you know? Engadget selected the “digital mirrors” we created for the Maserati as a finalist for the Best of CES Awards 2015.
2015 and 2016: Concept clusters in QNX reference vehicle
The QNX reference vehicle, based on a Jeep Wrangler, is our go-to vehicle for showcasing the latest capabilities of the QNX CAR Platform for Infotainment. But it also does double-duty as a technology concept vehicle. For instance, in early 2015, we equipped the Jeep with a concept cluster that provides lane departure warnings, collision detection and curve speed warnings. In this image, the cluster is recommending that you reduce speed to safely navigate an upcoming curve:
Just in time for CES 2016, the Jeep cluster got another makeover that added crosswalk notifications to the mix:
Did you know? Jeep recently unveiled the Trailcat, a concept Wrangler outfitted with a 707HP Dodge Hellcat engine.
2016: Glass cockpit in a Toyota Highlander
By now, you can see how advances in sensors, navigation databases and other technologies enable us to integrate more information into a digital instrument cluster, all to keep the driver aware of important events in and around the vehicle. In our 2016 technology concept vehicle, we took the next step and explored what would happen if we did away with an infotainment system altogether and integrated everything – speed, RPM, ADAS alerts, 3D navigation, media control and playback, incoming phone calls, etc. – into a single cluster display.
On the one hand, this approach presented a challenge, because, well… we would be integrating everything into a single display! Things could get busy, fast. On the other hand, this approach presents everything of importance directly in front of the driver, where it is easiest to see. No more glancing over at a centrally mounted head unit.
Simplicity was the watchword. We had to keep distraction to a minimum, and to do that, we focused on two principles: 1) display only the information that the driver currently requires; and 2) use natural language processing as the primary way to control the user interface. That way, drivers can access infotainment content while keeping their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.
For instance, in the following scenario, the cockpit allows the driver to see several pieces of important information at a glance: a forward-collision warning, an alert that the car is exceeding the local speed limit by 12 mph and map data with turn-by-turn navigation:
This design also aims to minimize the mental translation, or cognitive processing, needed on the part of the driver. For instance, if you exceed the speed limit, the cluster doesn’t simply show your current speed. It also displays a red line (visible immediately below the 52 mph readout) that gives you an immediately recognizable hint that you are going too fast. The more you exceed the limit, the thicker the red line grows.
The 26262 connection
Today’s digital instrument clusters require hardware and software solutions that can support rich graphics and high-level application environments while also displaying critical information (e.g. engine warning lights, ABS indicators) in a fast and highly reliable fashion. The need to isolate critical from non-critical software functions in the same environment is driving the requirement for ISO 26262 certification of digital clusters.
QNX OS technology, including the QNX OS for Safety, is ideally suited for environments where a combination of infotainment, advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) and safety-related information are displayed. Building a cluster with the ISO 26262 ASIL-D certified QNX OS for Safety can make it simpler to keep software functions isolated from each other and less expensive to certify the end cluster product.
The partner connection
Partnerships are also important. If you had the opportunity to drop by our booth at 2016 CES, you would have seen a “cluster innovation wall” that showcases QNX OS technology integrated with user interface design tools from the industry’s leading cluster software providers, including 3D Incorporated’s REMO HMI Runtime, Crank Software’s Storyboard Suite, DiSTI Corporation’s GL Studio, Elektrobit’s EB GUIDE, HI Corporation’s exbeans UI Conductor and Rightware’s Kanzi UI software. This pre-integration with a rich choice of partner tools enables our customers to choose the user interface technologies and design approaches that best address their instrument cluster requirements.
For some partner insights on digital cluster design, check out these posts: