DETROIT – Siemens VDO Automotive Corp. says aspects of its modular cockpit structure likely will appear in production vehicles in Europe as early as next year.

The supplier displayed a BMW 5-Series sedan equipped with its fully operational CESAR concept at last week’s Ward’s Auto Interiors show here.

The Cockpit Electromechanical System Architecture represents a revolutionary change in the way instrument panels are designed and manufactured for vehicles around the world.

Today, each electronic device installed in an instrument panel – namely instrument clusters, climate control, audio, navigation and the body control module – requires a separate controller with unique software allowing the devices to communicate with each other.

With CESAR, Siemens VDO applies a system approach that optimizes vehicle communication by replacing all five controllers with two central servers, says James Bayley, business development manager-cockpit modules and systems for Siemens VDO.

The first is a “real-time” server that supports the functions of the instrument clusters, body control and climate control, while a second “multimedia” server controls the radio and navigation system, Bayley says.

“It means the brains of the electronic devices are consolidated into central servers, rather than duplicated in redundant software programming and hardware boxes,” he says. The two servers can be located wherever convenient: behind the instrument panel, in the trunk or under the seat.

The design implications are enormous: Massive amounts of wiring harnesses are eliminated, generating overall weight reductions of about 24 lbs. (11 kg) and freeing up about 0.7 cu. ft. (20 L) of valuable packaging real estate within the cockpit.

Overall, weight savings are estimated at 15%, and design costs drop by about 30%, Siemens VDO says.

The CESAR concept also introduces a level of modularity, enabling an instrument panel to be broken into four pieces: the center stack, driver module (including instrument clusters), passenger module (including glovebox) and a “topper pad” to cap off the entire assembly. Each module can be finished with A-surface quality.

Modularity allows auto makers to easily alter the appearance of the cockpit for special-edition vehicles, while maintaining the identical substructure. “Or you could develop interchanging modules for a customizable cockpit,” Bayley says.

Siemens VDO expects interior designers to embrace the CESAR concept because it eliminates the traditional “brick” configuration for audio components, which generally are installed as a standard block that inserts into the center stack. The unsightly – and often unavoidable – lines that remain visible to vehicle occupants are the bane of interior designers.

“Designers want to get rid of these ugly boxes,” Bayley says. “Now, the buttons and knobs on the IP can be configured freely without constraint to the bricks that they are a part of.”

The CESAR concept also introduces a completely unique level of intelligence to instrument panels. The system is so smart, it can identify whether the driver or front-seat passenger is pressing a button.

That means an instrument panel no longer needs one button for the driver and one for the passenger to adjust a dual-zone climate control system. One button will suffice.

Same with heated seats – one button will do.

Bayley declines to reveal specifics about how this bit of engineering wizardry is achieved, except to say an electrical circuit is completed every time the driver or passenger touches a button on the IP. “It’s a user detection system,” he says. “A circuit is created. You become part of the car by completing the circuit.”

Plus, the modules snap in easily for assembly and are simply removed in the event service is necessary on components within the instrument panel.

Even the connections are simplified. Instead of linking components within the instrument panel with numerous wiring harnesses, each module attaches to the vehicle’s communication network through a self-aligning connector that mounts directly to the cross-car beam within the instrument panel.

With a magnesium cross-car beam, Siemens VDO estimates weight savings for a full CESAR cockpit of about 25 lbs. (11 kg).

With a conventional steel beam, the weight savings are about 20 lbs. (9 kg).

Siemens VDO also claims simplifying assembly of the instrument panel will minimize reliability and quality glitches for components within the IP.

But until the system is in production and in the hands of consumers, it is a difficult claim to support.

Bayley declines to say what aspects of CESAR will be in production next year for a European customer. He says Siemens VDO also has developed the concept for two domestic OEMs, with production for the U.S. market likely to occur in 2010.

The concept has been on the road as a working prototype for less than a year.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com