In 2018, the global automotive industry entered a new era of digitalization, connectivity, and automation. As vehicles are becoming more advanced and autonomous, the driving experience is evolving drastically. The car interior is getting more personal, functional, and efficient. The amorphous flat LCD screens with physical buttons are starting to vanish, replaced by larger, more functional, interactive displays. And this is just the beginning.
Thanks to a new generation of smart, flexible, transparent displays, we will soon be able to enjoy improved safety on the road, easier navigation, and personalized entertainment. Imagine a car with a custom Human Machine Interface (HMI) that can be upgraded and configured to your personal preferences, integrated with your favourite applications and “hidden until lit” flexible touchscreens attached to virtually any surface.
Transforming the market
Although traditional LCD glass-based technologies still account for more than 90% of displays sold globally today, they will clearly need to be replaced with more flexible and robust alternatives to better fit the shapes and curves of the car interior. Bendable, wrappable, glass-free displays will help the driver receive all the crucial safety information and entertainment they need without looking away from the road.
Flexible displays on the steering wheel and pillars, as well as novel passenger entertainment displays, will become an integral part of the future cars. The IHS Markit predicts that the market for head-up, instrument cluster, and centre stack displays will reach 118.5 million units globally by the end of 2018 and continue to grow rapidly at least until the year 2022.
Investing in Flexibility
Industry leaders recognize the enormous potential benefits of such technologies and strive to expand its possibilities with bold investment and intensive research. A French plastic supplier firm Novares has recently committed to investing €50m in the development of technological innovations, with €5m tranches for FlexEnable, a Cambridge company producing a new generation of Organic Thin Film Transistor (OTFT) plastic electronics for flexible organic liquid crystal displays (OLCD) and sensors.
Organic Liquid Crystal Displays (OLCD)
Replacing silicon with organic transistors and using ultra-thin plastic materials in place of glass, FlexEnable has designed the world’s first OLCD. This technology creates thin, reliable, bright, light, shatterproof displays that can be conformed, scaled, and shaped to different large areas or cut into any shape. It is four times thinner and 10 times lighter than the glass-based LCD and cheaper than any other flexible display technology. The long lifetime of OLCD is achieved through transmission of a separate light source (the backlight), without the need to emit its own light.
The flexibility, extended lifetime, and low cost of the OLCD technology reflect the evolving needs of the modern automotive industry. For instance, a curved display on the A-pillar of the car replacing the wing mirror can increase the aerodynamic efficiency or show the driver what is behind the pillar. OLCD is expected to enter mass production by the end of the year, targeting automotive markets, consumer electronics, smart home appliances, and digital signage. Novares has recently presented its Nova Car #1 demo, featuring FlexEnable’s flexible OLCD FlexView that can be easily integrated into the modern cockpits to improve security.
Meanwhile, electrical engineers at Shandong University and the University of Manchester have developed an ultrafast oxide-based transistor that can be used in the circuitry and displays of flexible and transparent electronics. Oxide-based transistors utilize a mix of gallium, zinc, and indium oxides to create displays that are both see-through and flexible. The transistors are suited for optically transparent electronics and can be used in circuit boards over large surface areas like car windscreens. The oxide transistor can function at speeds of more than 1 gigahertz, running over a billion operations in a second. It is fast enough to support Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and other functions expected from modern gadgets.
The University of Manchester is now conducting a research and development project aimed at commercializing the new transistors. They expect to implement commercial applications for oxide-based technology within the next five years.
Another flexible technology uses the active matrix OLED (AMOLED) panels that are more thin, light, sharp, and stylish when compared to the typical LCD screens. OLED uses plastic instead of a glass substrate giving greater design options with curved or flexible displays. OLED’s light source emits over an entire surface, creating new opportunities for lighting and display effects.
Lyteus has utilized flexible OLED technology to design the first transparent highly bendable automotive heads-up display (HUD) built on a thin plastic substrate. The display can be integrated into the vehicle’s windshield adding driver-friendly functionality without adding weight. It is multi-colour segmented and can be fully customized during manufacture with segments of any shape and colour. The OLED-on-plastic approach also enables an exquisitely light and thin display with complete freedom of design. Lyteus offers a large-scale pilot production of bendable OLEDs in any shape and colour, transparent or reflective, and with a uniformity surpassing any other light source.
However, OLED displays require a long lifetime at high brightness in a harsh environment, with lifetime decreasing rapidly with increased brightness. OLED technologies have a promising potential for automotive environments, but they need to address some major challenges to achieve high-temperature reliability, lifespan, and low-cost requirements for wider application on the market.
All the described technologies are competing to make driving more safe, efficient, and fun. The controls are getting more advanced and intuitive, allowing continuous interaction and communication with the car and the outside world, integrating many useful apps such as Apple Car and Android Car Play. In the future, experts expect to see virtual HMIs with flexible digital tactile or holographic screens, fewer buttons, and perhaps no physical driving wheel. Volkswagen is currently testing movement control, while other competitors experiment with tactile textures, voice control, and augmented reality.
What about self-driving cars?
We believe partially self-driving cars will be prevalent for a long time before fully autonomous cars can become viable and widely available. As manufacturers are experimenting with radically new HMI prototypes using shaped, flexible, customizable displays, the HMIs will become more extensive.
Large, flexible displays customized to the curved surfaces of the car interior will be at the heart of the new generation HMIs. They will serve as a crucial element for communication between the car and the driver and a source for infotainment and communication for the passengers. These user-friendly innovations will revolutionise driving, making cars more connected, crash-safe, and autonomous.