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As vehicles become smarter and more autonomous, another technological advancement will ignite this trend over the next decade: all-digital display-based dashboards will soon universally replace analog clusters, making the entire cockpit digital and incorporated into a single Engine Control Unit (ECU). Between now and 2030, 461 million vehicles with head-unit and digital dashboard displays and 115 million vehicles with digital cockpit architecture will be shipped.

Customers have become more demanding about their infotainment expectations, with smartphones, tablets, and streaming services vendors always searching for ways to increase bandwidth speeds and decrease latency. For better or worse, these demands have shifted from the home and office to the car, with drivers expecting the same user interface they get with their IoT devices.

Which Functionalities Are in Demand?

Like with many smart devices at home, consumers will soon be looking for bigger, brighter, and faster components on their vehicles’ digital dashboard. The main trends to look out for include:

Personalization via Voice Assistants and Other Artificial Intelligence (AI) Capabilities: Voice commands and voice assistants will become a significant technology feature in future infotainment systems. More than natural speech recognition, consumers will look for a personalized experience in which a voice assistant can recognize them and their preferences, as well as the preferences of frequent passengers. Understanding that conversational AI will propel two-way communication between drivers and their vehicles in the future, natural interaction requires low latency for a fast response, requiring processing power not yet implemented.

 ▪ Digital Cockpit with Multiple Displays: Not only are dashboards moving from analog to fully digital, but displays inside the car feature multiple, large high-resolution screens. Similar to a smartphone, the digital cockpit allows for touchscreen commands and provides an immersive experience with advanced graphics.

 ▪ Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates: Tesla, after implementing OTA software updates in their vehicles, encouraged carmakers to study potential revenue opportunities for upgrading their software as well. Over-the-air allows drivers to upgrade infotainment and autonomous driving applications within the car or through a smartphone. Using BMW as one example, drivers can even subscribe to new vehicle functionalities OTA, such as heated seats, that were not activated during the original purchase.

 ▪ Video Streaming and Gaming: Embedded video streaming and gaming were also first introduced by Tesla and are now being considered by other Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) as standard features in semi-autonomous and Electric Vehicles (EVs). For safety reasons, these functionalities are only available for the rear seats, or when the car is parked/charging.

3D Graphics: Autonomous and electric vehicles will utilize 3D graphics for gaming on the digital cockpit. Apart from entertainment purposes, 3D graphics can also be used to show the vehicle's internal and external environment in the car's head unit, dashboard, and even heads-up display, to support driving assistance tasks.

How Vehicles Will Get to Fully Digital

Future digital cockpit architecture will include functionalities such as infotainment, rear-seat entertainment, instrument clusters, and ADAS, that are incorporated into a single ECU with powerful processors to achieve the computing needs of all the domains and drive multiple high-resolution displays simultaneously.

These powerful processors - offered by TI, NXP, Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and Renesas - provide additional capacity for software updates after the car has been sold, enabling monetization of a growing installed base of connected cars.

Although digital cockpits are expected to lower production costs in the mid-term, deploying a centralized and upgradable architecture requires considerable up-front investments; infotainment production processes must be remodeled, and achieving economies of scale and experience takes time. Currently available in a few luxury vehicles (e.g., Mercedes A-Class and TATA Harrier), digital cockpits will start to filter down into lower-tiered automobiles from 2025 and will be featured in 39 million vehicles shipping in 2030. Visteon, Harman, Pioneer, and Continental are among the major Tier Ones offering this architecture. 

From a general perspective, displays are getting larger and resolution is increasing accordingly. Between the end of this year and 2025, 105 million vehicles shipped will have displays ranging from 10 inches to 12 inches, and 109 million will have high definition displays. Currently only offered by Tesla, video and gaming streaming will gain momentum with worldwide 5G network deployments - as low latency rendering is a prerequisite for immersive gaming user experience - and the rise of connected vehicles.

Announcements from automotive-grade entertainment middleware providers, such as Cinemo and ACCESS, indicate OEM deployments of the functionality from 2021. Nearly 20% of vehicles with head-unit displays sold in Europe will feature these capabilities in 2030. Augmented Reality heads-up displays will debut in 2021 on the next edition of the Mercedes S-Class, and should remain a niche functionality in luxury vehicles.

Because of the substantial amount of information that must be processed and rendered to enable these functionalities, vehicles will require robust and flexible hardware solutions with high-performance graphics and communication channels between different tasks and displays. When all is said and done, modern cars will have significantly enhanced digital cockpit architecture with powerful computing.

ABI Research’s New Automotive Infotainment Architectures application analysis report provides comprehensive insight on the implications behind the infotainment applications set to redefine the digital dashboard landscape. This report is part of the company’s Smart Mobility & Automotive Research Service, which includes research, data, and ABI Insights.