DETROIT – Preh Automotive, the automotive controls and sensors unit of Germany’s Preh GmbH, develops a new human-vehicle interface system aimed at navigation and infotainment systems.

Shown here at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, Preh’s Human-Machine Interface (HMI) concept also serves as an evolution of the current systems the company supplies to auto makers such as Audi AG (Multi-Media Interface) and DaimlerChrysler AG (Mercedes-Benz Command), says Nick Lontscharitsch, Preh senior vice president-sales.

Similar to Audi’s MMI and BMW AG’s iDrive systems, the HMI concept allows for greater driver-vehicle integration through the use of advanced haptic and electronic-control technologies.

The system employs a multi-function central control knob/scrolling wheel that can be twisted, tilted or depressed to select an item from the menu. The knob automatically locks out all other directional movements, so only the desired feature is activated.

In addition to the central control knob, the concept features a laptop computer-like touch pad, proximity buttons and freely programmable controls for more efficient operation.

The touch pad, while not guaranteed to make it into production versions, adds a new element that could become increasingly important as navigation systems evolve and more sophisticated electronics are added to infotainment systems, Lontscharitsch says.

The pad primarily is used for negotiating and selecting maps in advanced navigation systems. But it also boasts handwriting recognition capability, so the pad can be used to input into the vehicle’s memory handwritten directions, numbers and commands.

The device also employs capacitor-based proximity buttons designed to sense an approaching hand or finger and project the function of the button on the windshield via a head-up display.

In the case of the radio, for example, the corresponding stations would appear on the windshield as the driver moves his finger alongside the preset buttons. Depressing a button activates the desired function, while the driver never has to take his eyes off the road.

The HMI concept also features programmable buttons to better manage the growing number of controls integrated into vehicle center stacks.

The programming feature operates with a central memory button, much like the memory feature on power seats. The various functions for the programmed controls can be changed and are displayed through the backlit buttons by a unique projection liquid crystal display (LCD).

LCD projection technology produces fineness and contour sharpness similar to that of cellular phones and hand-held computers, Preh says, making them easy to read night or day.

In addition to Audi and Mercedes-Benz, Preh also supplies vehicle infotainment interfaces to DC’s Maybach ultra-luxury unit, Porsche AG and Fiat Auto SpA’s Alfa Romeo and Lancia brands.

Lontscharitsch says the technology is core to Preh’s future success as an electronics control supplier and that the company has acquired significant new business for production versions of the HMI concept.

Included in that is the next generation of Audi’s MMI, along with a similar system for another European auto maker. Both should come to market in the 2008-2009 timeframe, Lontscharitsch says.

Along with the HMI concept, Preh also shows its new iRD integrated rain and defogging sensor for automatic climate control and rain-sensing wiper applications. The technology currently is featured on most BMW models with automatic climate controls systems and Rolls-Royce plc’s Phantom ultra-luxury sedan.

The iRD sensor produces cost savings by integrating two sensors into one. In addition, the capacitor-based design of the system, opposed to the light-emitting diode operation of traditional rain sensors, also offers easier packaging due to its smaller size, and improved operation because of the capacitor’s greater sensitivity compared with LEDs.

Lontscharitsch says the company has signed a major contract to supply a global, Asian auto maker with the technology for use on a new ’07 model set to appear next year.

msutton@wardsauto.com