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Hands-on with Acura's novel touchpad infotainment interface

22 November 2016 - Autoblog

Acura's novel touchpad infotainment interface

After Acura's Precision Cockpit was unveiled here in LA, I sat in the, uh, driver's seat of the wheel-less interior mockup to get a feel for how this new touchscreen-free touch interface works. There are a lot of good ideas inside. Here are 11 things you should know.

It's less like a trackpad and more like a remote-control tablet.

So instead of letting you move a cursor relative to its last location like the trackpad on a laptop, each point on Acura's trackpad is mapped to a corresponding point on the center display. If you want what's in the upper right corner of the display, you touch and click in the upper right corner of the trackpad. Simple.

I figured it out in two minutes.

Maybe less. The whole thing is surprisingly intuitive. The ease of use is helped by the fact that the targets on the screen are pretty big – no tiny "buttons" to fiddle with.

The clicks are real.

The trackpad actually moves when you press down, so no need for simulated haptic feedback. In their research, Acura engineers found that accidental touches and presses are a real issue. We could have told them that – hit a bump while using a finicky remote interface like Lexus's all-but-abandoned joystick thing, and you select an item half-way across the screen from the one you intended. The placement of the trackpad in this concept interior also helps avoid unintentional inputs – it's not in the middle of the center console where it might get brushed or bumped, but instead in its own little cave at the base of the center-stack waterfall. (Acura's low-profile button-based transmission selector suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.)

Lots of cues cut down on distraction.

You hover over the option you want before positively confirming the selection with a hard press. There's no cursor to find and reposition like in the Lexus trackpad system The red highlight gives the necessary visual cue that you put your finger in the right place. The pad is slightly dished to give you a tactile cue of where the center and edges are. It allows you to build up muscle memory, sort of like how you know generally where the "keys" are on your smartphone or tablet's virtual keyboard by now. Or at least I do on mine.

You look at the screen, not what you're touching.

The problem with touch screens is that they have to be low down in the car so you can reach them. That means you have to look down from the road to stab at what you want. With Precision Cockpit, it's quicker (and therefore safer) to get what you want because you're not looking at the trackpad. The trackpad can also be used for character entry like on other systems, which you can pretty much do blind if it works well.

Controls only show up when they're needed.

Acura's designers call them ambient and interactive display modes. When you're just driving along and have an audio source selected, for example, the center screen is taken up by things like album art and song info that is nicely styled, big, and easy to read. When you reach for the touchpad, those items shrink and rearrange themselves to make room for the on-screen controls you can interact with. No sense in showing you buttons when you're not using them. Other automakers do this to some extent, like the VW nav systems that raise a hidden row of buttons from the bottom of the screen when you move your hand toward it, but Acura is resizing and reconfiguring info more aggressively, giving a much cleaner look to the at-rest views.

It's easy to reconfigure and swap the split screens.

About a quarter of the center screen on the right side can give you a display of the current audio or navigation or just the time. It gets its own scroll control alongside the trackpad, allowing you to quickly flick through the various views, and that touch area can also be used to do things like accept or ignore a phone call when one comes in and appears in that section. A button above that scroll control swaps the current main and side views, so you can flip to the audio source to change the song and then swap back to a big nav display without ever having to go through the home screen and navigate back through a level or two of menus. It also eliminated the need for dedicated hard buttons for things like navigation, media, radio, and climate.

The whole thing is pretty darn quick – and pretty.

Some of the first things I noticed during the demo were the very quick responses and the crispness of the two 12.3-inch color screens. We know the system is Android-based, but Acura isn't talking about hardware supplier partners just yet. It's easily as quick as Audi's NVIDIA-based Virtual Cockpit, and we wouldn't be surprised if NVIDIA was involved here too. But that's nerdy nitty-gritty – back to how it works.

Honda and Acura are learning from past mistakes.

Remember when Honda got rid of volume knobs? The re-emergence of that physical control on the new CR-V is a sign Honda learned that lesson, and I'm told that even though the interior concept doesn't have one, production versions of Precision Cockpit will get a volume knob. You'll also note that Acura has abandoned the confusing two-display center stack here. I never could figure out which screen I was controlling with that one.

The driver info display has a lot of tricks.

While Acura obviously couldn't demonstrate any autonomous features in this motionless interior mockup, I did get to see some simulated screens in the gauge display that look promising. In one view, you get a representation of your car in its lane with skeletons of other cars in traffic showing up to give you an idea where everyone else is. The view also changes in response to the driving situation, going from the lane representation to a camera view with augmented reality overlays, such as the AI's best guess at the path of the bicycle in your blind spot or highlighted pedestrians or vehicles ahead that pose a hazard.

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay will probably be included.

I didn't get a clear answer because Acura wants to focus attention on what it built, but these seem like no-brainers given how widespread their adoption has become. That said, as functions like navigation get more entwined with self-driving capabilities and more displays show us more info, it may make less sense to use a phone-based system on top of a really well-integrated infotainment setup.

We expect to see a production version of this infotainment concept in two to three years. I like what I saw today, but I will say that Acura better get this to market soon before it feels dated.


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