The Next Innovations in AutoTech: Surface Illumination

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By Mike Casper

When I think about the future of autotech, it’s hard not to immediately think of the luminous hovercrafts we see in Hollywood blockbusters. These vehicles rely on touchless holographic control panels, voice activation, and any maps the drivers need are overlaid on the windshield.

These futuristic visions no longer seem as outlandish as they used to, as technology here in the present is catching up to our imaginations. Does this mean that OEMs will do away with tactile dashboard buttons altogether in favor of intelligent, illuminated glass? The answer is not just probably – it’s yes.

While many conversations about the future of autotech include heads-up displays (HUD), these still require space and quite a bit of engineering to fold away. With today’s light transmission technology, we can do without the heavy infrastructure.

In our recent conversation with Eric Blair, Director of Special Projects at Azumo, he shared insights into what smart surfaces will look like in automobiles in the near term. But that’s not the limit to what surface illumination can add to the driver and passenger experience.

The Future of Interior Automotive Lighting Is Subtle and Versatile

A cursory search for lighting options for vehicles today reveal chunky strips of LEDs that can be tucked into an edge of ceiling upholstery, but designers are no longer limited by these highly visible light bars. Azumo’s ultra-thin light guide film can add illumination layered into existing glass or interior surfaces.

And today, any surface can display information, not all of which must be text. From a new, low-profile replacement for hood ornaments to car interiors that can illuminate symbols on the dashboard, auto designers have more options than ever thanks to flexible, nearly invisible display technology.

Because Azumo’s light guide film is flexible, it doesn’t have the design limitations of flat LCD panels that are typically used in dashboards, center consoles, and back-of-seat entertainment displays.

Truly Seamless: Integrated Illumination Opportunities

In the push to make electric consumer vehicles more affordable, OEMs are already investing in new technology to replace interior design elements with lighter and lower power alternatives. The hidden benefit of this trend is that it is pushing engineers to ask how they can make the driver and passenger experience better with lower profile hardware that won’t require as much of the vehicle’s running energy budget, with the added benefit of new branding opportunities.

In automotive applications, regulations require that any display on the windows or windshield must be transparent, which is still a limiting design factor. Azumo’s light guide film can be used to overcome the limits imposed by transparency concerns over existing glass surfaces. And these glass surfaces aren’t the only ones that can be illuminated with intelligent features or used to display information.

In the next few generations of consumer vehicles, we’ll see the way designers approach interior light evolve to be more subtle and more deeply integrated into the rider experience.

Surface Display Technology Isn’t Limited to Auto Interiors

The applications of innovative surface display technology aren’t limited to consumer applications:

  • Shipping companies may soon leverage exterior display panels to communicate load data and relevant fleet information for easier communication.
  • Rather than putting an expensive plug-in display on drivers’ dashboard, rideshares (even those in autonomous vehicles) will be able to display rider information and a confirmation message to ensure the right person gets into the right vehicle.
  • With the right integration and state cooperation, identifying information, including license plates, could be swapped out for a digital version of this display.
  • Invisible sensors and lasers used for LiDAR detection can be embedded into conformed surfaces rather than discrete points, enabling safer and more accurate sensing.

The primary challenge to the adoption of surface illumination technology on auto exteriors will be the question of reliability and durability. OEMs would need to invest time and money to ensure this technology is road-ready, which may be a tough sell to executives who are comfortable with the results they can get from placing backlit LEDs in discrete locations to achieve the desired lighting effect.

But this bulky, energy-hungry solution won’t work forever. New and emerging digital illumination options are superior to the stickers and plates we rely on today.

The Bright Future of Surface Illumination in Automotive Applications

Surfaces throughout the car are ripe for innovation, and the one I’ve said the least about is the display surface drivers are most familiar with.

To compete with bright sunlight during the daytime, the LCD center consoles we’re accustomed to must emit more light than is really required to illuminate the screen or be buried deep in the dashboard to stay protected from natural light.

Or, with Azumo’s reflective LCD in place, these standard displays could leverage the ambient light to improve screen visibility in bright lighting conditions. At night, the support of a few LEDs is enough to illuminate the screen.

Perhaps as importantly, Azumo’s reflective LCD displays are reliable for longer and in a broader range of temperatures than competitive alternatives, like OLED displays, which are unlikely to hold up over a vehicle’s lifecycle

Today, there are many ways to improve how we light vehicles. If you’re interested in hearing more about how Azumo can help with your display and illumination needs, contact us today.

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