Acura Precision Cockpit: Futuristic? Check. Suitable for production? Just about

LOS ANGELES — The Acura Precision Cockpit (APC) concept unveiled this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show helps you merge from the on-ramp in heavy traffic, provides a schematic of the cars around you, and shows when it’s safe to change lanes. Some of the precision cockpit is futuristic and awaits several more years of development, plus cars equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

The core offering is an eminently practical pair of 12.3-inch LCDs, possibly a head-up display, and a concave-shaped center console touchpad with absolute positioning. This part feels ready to go to market in a year or two. All that’s missing is console space for a pair of cupholders, and Acura has plans for them. A car with APC would do away with Acura’s longstanding cockpit controller mounted on the center stack.

An advanced vision mode leverages sensors and artificial intelligence to display cars, pedestrians, bicyclists and other objects – even those obscured from vision – using artificial intelligence to predict future pathways. This mode builds human confidence in the car’s automated driving systems.

Acura’s vision: Track the bicyclists’s path

Here’s the vision thing part of APC: Your 12.3-inch instrument panel (or “meter display”) shows speed, engine rpm, adaptive cruise control settings — the usual stuff. Engage the automated system and it also pops up warnings such as “Occluded pedestrian,” meaning the look-ahead sensors see a pedestrian possibly before you. “Occluded” will not be in any shipping Acura, says Michael Tsay, one of Acura’s principal designers.

Finding and not hitting pedestrians is possible now. According to Acura, APC’s advanced vision mode “leverages sensors and artificial intelligence to display cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other objects – even those obscured from vision – using artificial intelligence to predict future pathways. This mode builds human confidence in the car’s automated driving systems.” For instance, see the instrument panel above, which shows the car’s path down a suburban street.  The car has been tracking a bicyclist riding to the right of the Acura and AI believes it will cross to the other side of the intersection; a white line shows the most likely path. Then the rider starts to cross in front of the Acura. APC recalculates the cyclist’s path and paints a line indicating a left turn. If the cyclist is slow to cross, the car brakes if you don’t.

This sounds like one of those “why doesn’t the driver just pay attention?” moments. But sometimes a bicyclist or pedestrian is obscured by the A-pillar (the one at the windshield). It has been decades since the A-pillar was narrower than the distance between a human’s eyes. And sometimes the driver’s attention does drift. Either way, when APC and AI do their thing, “This [automated] mode builds human confidence in the car’s automated driving systems.”

When automated systems are engaged, the digital meter in the driver’s display utilizes a real-time 3D engine to support a dynamic layout that displays other cars and road objects recognized by the vehicle’s advanced sensors, leveraging vehicle-to-vehicle communications to visually distinguish cars operating autonomously.

V2V shows the cars around you

In a demo at the LA show, Acura showed other possibilities when cars support V2V, or vehicle to vehicle, communications, reporting their location, direction, speed, and which cars are operating autonomously. APC can build a birds eye view map of cars around it. It can show if there is room to change lanes (which some cars can already do today), or how fast to drive on the on-ramp to merge safely.

Acura’s engineers wouldn’t speculate on what’s possible in the near future vs. what requires higher levels of automation and V2V communications. Even getting half the cars on the road to have V2V would run well into the 2020s and self-driving cars won’t wait for that. There may well be an in-between period using the radar, sonar, and camera technology available today to change lanes or create a map of immediately adjacent vehicles: Think forward collision monitors and blind spot detection results shown on an overhead view map.

APC 2 Driver View

Displays that don’t call attention themselves

161117_482_764A7997_laasAcura created its own center stack icons that are minimalist, and often white on a dark background. Once exception is turning the dial to change driving modes, such as Quiet, Sport, Sport+, and Track were this the Acura NSX, where the image has color highlights unique to each mode.  This is where the infotainment controller is on current Acuras.

The center stack display is split, for instance a map on the left and audio information on the right. The main segment has either eight or six icons arranged in two rows. Acura’s Tsay says with more, it’s hard for the driver to parse the information and still pay attention.

To manipulate the display, the driver places a finger on the touchpad, which has a slight bowl-shaped indentation and ridges on the edge. The pad has absolute positioning (most car touchpads are relative and place your finger in the center of the screen). Place your finger in the absolute upper left and it always selects the upper left icon. Press the capacitive touchpad, the icon is selected, and the pad pops up slightly to verify you made the selection. Above the touchpad are Back and Home buttons. On the right are up-down arrows to choose among the available screens for the right side window.

In use, I found it only took a minute or so to feel comfortable finding the location that coincided with the correct button on the center stack display, which is specifically non-touchscreen. This may well be a simplified infotainment interface that doesn’t take much of a learning curve.  Touchscreens have annoyed customers at Cadillac (Cadillac CUE) as well as Display Audio on some Hondas.

All of this is built on an Android platform. Acura says Android is the company’s operating system of the future.

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Shipping car needs cupholders, maybe dedicated HVAC controls

The Acura Precision Cockpit still requires some choices: where to put the cupholders and whether to integrate HVAC controls into the display screen, or keep them as a separate area of the center stack with their own buttons and display. Car companies that took away physical climate controls generally put them back at the midlife refresh.

Steven Feit, chief engineer of infotainment systems for Honda and Acura, said Acura started with a clean sheet design and surveyed lots of drivers to get an idea what they wanted. Acura Precision Cockpit is the result. It will be interesting to see how Acura transitions from the elegant styling buck show in LA to a production dashboard, perhaps in a year or two. It could be the next generation Acura RLX, the sales-king Acura MDX SUV, or it might be the car evolving from the Acura Precision Concept vehicle (above). Acura Precision Cockpit is a far cry from early 2000s Acuras that annoyed owners with as many as 50 dials and buttons. The auto show design may be simpler than the production car, though.

Acura has sometimes been a lonely voice in the woods, for instance arguing that no passenger car needs more than six cylinders. They were eventually proven right, especially when the car has turbocharging and / or electric boost as the NSX does.

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