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The "EasyControl" controller prototype from Siemens VDO Automotive Corp. (Auburn Hills, MI; http://usa.siemensvdo.com) is just that when it comes to providing input for such things as entering phone numbers or addresses into a telematics system. It places a laptop-style touchpad on the top surface of a tactile feedback control knob similar to the one used for BMW’s iDrive system. The pad allows users to quickly enter letters or numbers by simply tracing them out with a finger rather than having to select them from a list on a screen. Once a character is entered, the system reads it back to confirm the selection. Operators can also invent custom characters and use them as shortcut commands. The main advantage of EasyControl is that it keeps drivers’ eyes on the road, but with voice recognition systems steadily improving it may turn out to be a clever technology in search of a purpose.
Another idea from Siemens VDO is a dual-zone HVAC system that knows whether the driver or front passenger is operating the controls. Here’s how it works: whenever the driver or passenger touches the HVAC control knob to make an adjustment, the person’s body makes a weak electrical connection between the metal knob and the sensor net in the seat. While the electrical current transmitted is not enough to be noticeable, it is enough to tell the system who the operator is so it can make adjustments accordingly. According to Winfried Moll, director, electronics engineering, using this method would allow automakers to get a dual-zone HVAC system for about the price of a standard single-zone since only one control unit is needed. Another benefit is that the single control reduces clutter and frees up highly coveted real estate in the middle of the instrument panel. And since it utilizes the existing seat sensor array already fitted for use with smart airbags, there is no additional cost at that end. One downside for potential customers who are women or female impersonators: it doesn’t work through artificial fingernails.—KEW