The issue for carmakers is very simple: why equip a car with traditional controls like buttons and switches when nearly everyone has a control device in their pocket – a smartphone?
The touch-screens of smartphones and tablet computers are ideal for controlling automotive accessories such as air-conditioning, infotainment and navigation, providing that looking at a screen does not distract the driver while the car is in motion.
“Back-seat passengers are the main beneficiaries,” said expert Werner Hamberger from Audi.
“This gives these occupants more say in what is going on.”
Those being chauffeured do not have to keep their eyes on the road, which makes high-tech comfort particularly attractive for the upper echelons of the market.
Flying Spur limousines from luxury maker Bentley now come with a slick remote control which whirrs up from the rear of the centre console.
The device is the size of a cigarette packet and is fitted with a touch-screen. It manages an arsenal of audio-visual equipment in the cabin, including twin TV screens, a navigation system, a stereo and even a fridge.
The remote allows passengers to configure the seats, adjust interior temperature and play with the venetian blinds while they are being whisked from pavement to penthouse by a chauffeur.
Bentley uses a dedicated device for comfort functions, whereas systems in a Mercedes-Benz respond to an owner’s iPhone, which doubles as a command centre.
Owners of a new S-Class limousine can download a special app which permits them to alter the interior temperature from the back seat or to select their favourite music to be played over the stereo system, said company spokesman Michael Allner.
This type of control is bound to trickle down to cheaper cars. When the next generation Volkswagen Passat rolls into showrooms in Europe this autumn, the revamped mid-range saloon will “democratise some more technology,” as VW development boss Heinz-Jakob Neusser put it.
The reloaded Passat will come with an app which owners can download to a tablet.
Using the car’s Wi-Fi, passengers will be able to surf the internet using the device as well as interact with the infotainment system.
The idea is that the tablet shows the same information as the driver is seeing in the cockpit.
This might include the route being taken and the time still needed to complete a journey from A to B. This could go some way to soothing impatient children, who rile their long-suffering parents by asking them every five minutes, “Are we there yet?”
While carmakers have been busy providing an interface for regular communication devices made by the consumer electronics industry, Audi has gone a step further. It has come up with an Audi-brand tablet: a 10.2-inch display framed by an elegant brushed-aluminium housing.
The Audi Smart Display was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) exhibition in Las Vegas at the beginning of this year. It has been introduced as a remote control for a range of vehicle functions, said Werner Hamberger.
His job is to refine Audi’s control concepts. The hardware hooks up to vehicles over in-car Wi-Fi and gives occupants access to the web, media and navigation systems, as well as control over the radio.
Although the one shown in Las Vegas was just the prototype, Hamberger says it will not be too long before Audi models come equipped with the tablet as standard.
First off will be the rejigged version of the upmarket Q7 off-roader, for which customers can specify the slate as an option.
To guard against hackers being able to tamper with car systems, most makers are likely to restrict the tablet access in production models to ancillary features including air-conditioning.
Land Rover may go further. Still at the prototype stage is a neat feature which made its debut at this year’s New York auto expo.
This tablet allows the driver to exit the car, but remain in control if he decides it is safer and easier to inch the vehicle over obstacles from an outside vantage point.
The “all-terrain progress control” can be unplugged from the fascia and used as a kind of car remote control. The driver could also make use of it to accomplish tricky manoeuvres such as reversing the car up to a trailer.