ST. HELENA, CA – The ’10 RX cross/utility vehicle now hitting the U.S. market is a showcase for technology new to Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury brand.

A key feature of the new CUV series, which includes the RX 350 and RX 450h hybrid-electric variant, is the debut of a new optional human-machine interface, which Lexus calls Remote Touch.

It consists of a joystick-like device the driver uses to control the navigation system and other passenger-cabin functions.

Just don’t call it Lexus’ iDrive please, says Bob Allan, dealer education manager for Lexus College.

“I was a little nervous after seeing all the European (HMIs), but I was pleasantly surprised (by Remote Touch),” Allan tells Ward’s here of his experience with other systems, such as BMW AG’s iDrive and Audi AG’s MMI.

The product of years of research and collaboration between disparate groups: product development, design and ergonomics, Lexus says Remote Touch “helps address the competing objectives of minimizing driver distraction while providing a range of options for customizing the driving experience.”

Replacing a touch screen in the previous RX, the Remote Touch Controller is positioned in the ’10 RX on the center console near the driver’s right thigh.

Allan says the shape and positioning of the controller will be customized for application in a new or next-generation Lexus model, but the operation and feel of the unit will remain “pretty much the same” as it is rolled out across the lineup.

The “feel” refers to the haptic nature of the joystick, a flat, square knob positioned at the top of an elongated hump protruding from the console.

Moving the joystick controls a pointer on the RX’s 8-in. (20-cm) liquid-crystal display. When the pointer is moved over a series of the on-screen menu’s virtual buttons, there is tactile feedback “similar to rolling a ball over a flat surface and into a depression,” Lexus says.

When nearing a button, a pulling sensation is felt, making it easier for the driver to select a menu option without taking his eyes off the road too long.

Lexus says the feedback is generated via two “tiny motors” on two axes of the controller. The force of the feedback can be changed, as can the size and shape of the pointer, by accessing setup options in the menu.

Programmed sounds accompany the haptic feedback to “help reduce the mental load on drivers.”

While early designs of Remote Touch contained all functions, the final design incorporates separate map, menu, enter, display and zoom buttons that ring the entire unit, like BMW’s new – and much improved – iDrive.

The menu function is located top-left of the joystick knob and takes a user back to the start page.

The zoom “rocker switch” is placed top-middle of the knob and zooms in or out on the map screen and enables page scrolling.

The map button is top-right of the knob and displays the map screen and the vehicle’s current location on the map.

Two “enter” buttons are positioned on the lower left and right sides of the unit and need to be pressed to select a menu item. Using the enter buttons proves a bit difficult during a test drive of the ’10 RX, because their placement on the unit requires thumb-and-pinkie maneuvers.

Pressing the joystick to make a selection is a more intuitive movement, but choosing menu items this way would be difficult in an on-road environment, Allan says.

“In a car, you don’t have a nice, stable desk that you’re working on,” he says, referring to a computer mouse, which has a top-mounted enter button. “If you hit a bump and tap (the joystick knob) accidentally, you enter in the wrong information.”

With a separate enter button on the side of the unit “it’s really easy because you have to make a concerted effort to push the button on the side,” Allan says.

The display monitor is positioned higher on the center stack of the RX than the previous-generation’s LCD screen to reduce the distance a driver’s eyes must travel to view it. It employs a graphic user interface similar to that seen in earlier Lexus models.

The start screen of the ’10 RX’s GUI features five virtual buttons: destination, info/phone, setup, climate and audio.

Selecting one button brings up a sub-menu with more options. For instance, pressing “climate” calls up a screen with virtual representations of hard buttons for the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

For technophobes and those who decide the Remote Touch controller just isn’t to their liking, hard buttons found on the RX’s steering wheel, center stack and elsewhere in the cabin provide access to nearly all the same functions.

Additional access to the HVAC system, navigation and audio functions is available through the CUV’s new voice-recognition technology.

Using software supplied by VoiceBox Technologies Inc., the system is better able to understand casually spoken commands.

“With natural dialogue, I think everyone has the end result in mind that we can just say anything we want and the system is going to recognize it 100%,” says Trevor Neumann, senior manager-Mark Levinson Audio.

And although Lexus isn’t there yet, “this is a next step in that plateau,” he says.

In a series of demonstrations for Ward’s, Neumann’s voice commands are recognized most of the time and at a fast speed. In one test run, it takes the virtual concierge only a second to repeat back a long phone number rattled off by Neumann.

The software also is able to offer suggestions. For instance, an office phone number is presented as an option instead of a non-available cell-phone number requested.

However, some errors do occur, as a request to bring the temperature in the cabin up to “72 degrees” results in a change to “70 degrees.”

Although some structure still is required – a standard city-street-house number series of commands is needed to locate an address – the software in some instances does reduce the number of steps needed to perform a particular function.

For example, in selecting a satellite radio station, the name of the station can be given instead of its position on the dial, followed by the name.

“We’re still going to have some level of hierarchy, but it’s greatly minimized,” Neumann says of the VoiceBox software, which Lexus says is an added layer on top of its existing voice-recognition software.

Among other electronic features of the ’10 RX is standard Bluetooth technology, which is able to sync a cell-phone address book wirelessly at the push of a button, providing the phone is equipped with Phone Book Access Protocol. There also is a dual-screen rear-seat entertainment system with a 12-speaker audio system, a standard auxiliary input jack and an optional USB port.

The ’10 Lexus RX 350 is on sale now at U.S. Lexus dealerships, while the RX 450h will arrive midsummer.

In announcing last month its first proprietary telematics system, Lexus Enform, Toyota said the casual-speech voice-recognition system would be available on any navigation-equipped Lexus debuting in late-summer 2009 and beyond.