Free-form displays in the cockpit
What was once known as the dashboard can now justifiably be called a cockpit. Drivers no longer have to look at mechanical instruments to find out how fast they are traveling, check their engine speed or gather other related information, since displays can now provide a convenient overview of all that information. This overview will be noticeably expanded by LC display innovations from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, which are delighting designers and leading automotive suppliers such as Alpine.
Mathias Stegemann heads the Cockpit & Instruments team at Alpine Electronics
No designer would go anywhere today without the latest tablet. But when the design engineer Mathias Stegemann points to the cockpit of a future car, we notice that it no longer contains such rectangular-shaped LC displays. “The dashboard of the future will feature free-form, almost organic shapes that are in line with the designers’ vision and drivers’ needs,” he says. Stegemann certainly knows what he’s talking about, since he heads the Cockpit & Instruments team at Alpine Electronics GmbH in Munich. This company is one of the world’s leading suppliers of all types of automotive LC displays — whether they are on the dashboard or entertaining passengers in the rear seats.
The LC display as an all-rounder and designer item
Alpine’s business is to buy the basic LC displays and adapt them to the special requirements of automotive use. “We do this in close cooperation with the automakers, and the process encompasses a whole series of development steps,” says Stegemann, describing his daily work. Ensuring the safety of the vehicle’s occupants is always a top priority with respect to choosing the right displays. For example, during a crash the LC display breaks at precisely calculated points and its safety glass crumbles into harmless particles in order to minimize the risk of injury to the passengers.
“The dashboard of the future will feature free-form, almost organic shapes.“
Alpine Electronics GmbH
“But such an LC display must also for example be able to withstand a collision with a washing machine that is being transported inside the vehicle,” Stegemann adds. In addition to a high level of safety, buyers expect displays to be touch-operated, have a high-quality appearance, and produce clear and bright images that are clearly visible even when the sun is low on the horizon.
Luc Yao works on the development of freeform displays at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
© Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
“That’s a broad range of characteristics that must be harmonized with one another,” says Stegemann. The shape of LC displays is still fairly rectangular and flat. “That will change,” he adds, as he reaches into a drawer and takes out a nearly wave-shaped piece of glass that resembles a classic vase by the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. “This is what the next generation of automotive LC displays could look like,” says Stegemann. He is visibly pleased as he unveils a sketch of an almost futuristic-looking car cockpit in which the LC display can be freely formed in all three dimensions.
The secret of flexibility
This flexibility is made possible by one of the many innovations with which Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, is driving the development of liquid-crystal technology. “When you are creating free-form displays, one of the most important things is to make sure the cell gap of the liquid crystals device remains constant even upon bending,” says Luc Yao, who works on the development of these technologies within the LC2021 initiative at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.
Polymer wall LC technology
In simple terms, polymer wall LC technology involves constructing robust polymer walls directly within the liquid crystal layer of the panel. These ensure that the cell gap remains constant even when an LC display is simultaneously bent in different bending radii. As a result, a uniformly bright, clear and true-color image (see illustration) is provided at all times. This is only one of the effects of the innovations from Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany — and an especially visible one at that. Additional innovations are opening up new dimensions in an innovative manufacturing process, as Luc Yao explains, “Thanks to a newly developed manufacturing process, display panels can now be produced at lower temperatures. As a result, we can now also print displays onto plastic substrates instead of just onto glass, as was previously the case.”
This also thrills Mathias Stegemann at Alpine, who used to design the displays of flight instruments for helicopters. “Our customers from the automotive industry want even lighter modules as well,” he says. “Besides, during collisions plastic is safer than glass.”
Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, has presented a concept car that highlights innovative freeform displays
© Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
These new technologies have the potential to completely change the driving experience. “The activities of Alpine, which has 12,000 employees worldwide, can be summarized as driving mobile media innovation,” says Stegemann. The company’s first drivers of mobile media innovation consisted of amplifiers, car radios, and CD changers. “However, we are now heading toward offices on wheels,” says Stegemann about the self-driving cars of the future, which will give drivers time for work or also entertainment while they are on the road.
A new perspective on innovations
All of these developments are making LC displays even more important and strengthening the role played by Alpine. As a result, Alpine regards itself as not only an automotive supplier but also a company in the middle of a chain that extends from the developers of LC materials to the producers of the actual displays, the automakers, and the customers. Luc Yao at Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, is also enthusiastic about this development. “Because Alpine doesn’t manufacture basic displays, it isn’t a direct customer of our liquid crystal materials,” he says. “However, we’ve recently started to cooperate closely with companies such as Alpine, who are the customers of our customers. This keeps us even more abreast of market developments and also enables all of our partners, including the end customers, to benefit sooner from innovations.”