Next-generation human/machine interfaces on the horizon likely will greet consumers with a familiar face.

Auto makers are expected to lean on the trendy design and breakthrough technologies of Apple Inc.’s iPod portable music player and the multi-media iPhone to give their car and truck interiors an appealing aesthetic and entirely new level of functionality.

Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Vision Inc., a California-based consultancy that studies consumer buying patterns and brand loyalty, says auto makers are mimicking Apple’s designs in hopes of piggybacking on some of the company’s brand equity.

“If you walk into an Apple store, regardless of the day or the month, regardless of the weak economy, it is absolutely full of people,” Edwards tells Ward’s. “Automotive manufacturers are looking at that sort of demand and saying, ‘I’d like to get some of that.’”

Frank Homann, vice president-North American Interior Electronics Solutions Group at auto supplier Continental AG, distills it even further.

“Apple – it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s intuitive,” says Homann, who counts four Apple devices – iPods and iPhones – among his family’s possessions. “From my 5-year-old to myself, we like that stuff. But now the situation is, I want it in my car.”

Bringing popular electronics features to automobile interiors has been Homann’s assignment at Continental since last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, where he says auto makers got a glimpse of surface technology from Microsoft Corp. Surface technology allows users to interact with digital content on a screen without using a mouse or a keyboard.

Apple uses a similar technology, although scaled down to breast-pocket size from the 30-in. (76-cm) Microsoft workstations, with its newest iPhone.

“Literally a week later, a lot of OEMs called us and said, ‘What are you going to do about this; what can we offer our customers?’” recalls Homann.

Apple, which won’t necessarily contribute hardware or software to future HMIs; declined comment for this story.

J Mays, Ford Motor Co.’s group vice president and chief creative officer, says too many auto makers are trying to emulate Apple, which could dilute the “cool” factor they are trying to capture.

“I don’t think I’ve been to an auto presentation of any type that hasn’t had some current Apple product in it,” says Mays, who counts famed Apple designer Jonathan Ive among his friends. “I’m sure he (Ive) would be as frustrated as I am when people look at an Apple computer and say, ‘That looks cool.’ But that’s icing on the cake, they function very well, too.

“At some point you roll your eyes,” Mays says of the auto industry’s newfound fascination with everything Apple. “Because if we’re all looking at the same thing, how are you going to differentiate yourself?

“I think the mistake most people are making is they’re trying to emulate the superficial bits without understanding the emotional link between technology and consumers,” he says. “And to a large extent, that’s what we tried to do with Sync and Microsoft.”

Mays widely is credited with spearheading the trend of personalizing automotive electronics with his 24-7 concept vehicle that debuted at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The concept boasted technologies just now catching on with auto makers and suppliers, including voice-controlled electronics and a reconfigurable projected image display that allowed drivers to customize the instrument panel by changing the speedometer, fuel gauge and clock with voice commands.

Mays says when the 24-7 debuted it largely was panned by critics.

“Most didn’t quite understand what it was about,” he says. “What it was about was allowing people to feel they have control over their lives and have the ability to connect with friends and find places they’d like to go.”

For automotive designers to truly stand out, they must develop their own style, Mays says.

“I think everyone has to find their own way with design DNA,” he says. “And that’s something larger than just looking on the Internet and seeing what Apple is doing.”

At next year’s CES in Las Vegas, where Ford CEO Alan Mulally will follow General Motors Corp. Chairman CEO Rick Wagoner as the event’s second auto executive in two years to deliver a keynote address, Homann will unveil Continental’s next-generation HMI.

Homann withholds details, but he hints it will combine surface technology – which, for example, would enable drivers to arrange icons for items such as speedometers, odometers and fuel gauges on the instrument panel where they prefer – and Apple design and technology, such as capacitive switches.

Unlike mechanical switches, capacitive switches contain virtually no moving parts. Using a sensor located under an overlay with a foil layer in between, they perform a function by detecting the presence or absence of a finger.

“Just think about an iPhone in a center console,” he says. “So we are going to use some surface technology where you can do some cool things – sliding your hands, moving some things, user recognition, black-panel effects where when the vehicle is turned off it goes black (and) when you turn it on it glows through the glass, or whatever metallic material we are going to use.”

Homann also promises dual-screen technology, where drivers and passengers can view simultaneously different information or media.

But as the industry awaits Continental’s next-generation HMI, it has in fact already witnessed Apple’s tremendous influence with the production version of the ’11 Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle revealed last month at GM’s centennial celebration in Detroit.

“We had no intention of looking like Apple or emulating Apple, but we had some similar goals,” says Tim Greig, interior designer for the Volt.

For starters, Greig says, GM wanted the EV’s interior to carry an electric aesthetic. “So when you stood next to it, it looked electrified,” he says.

The auto maker also sought a fresh, appealing and intuitive design with clean, smooth surfaces; or as Greig says, “One that pulls you into the car.”

And, finally, GM sought flawless ergonomics. “A great HMI,” Greig says of GM’s intentions. “No excuses. Something that is going to give you a thrill.”

Some of the Volt’s key technologies include a driver-configurable, liquid-crystal instrument display and a standard 7-in. (18-cm) touch screen vehicle-information display atop the center stack that suggests an iPod in its docking station.

There’s also touch screen-style climate and infotainment controls and an optional navigation system with an onboard hard drive for maps and music storage.

Greig admits he has heard the comparisons to Apple, especially the company’s iconic iPod. But, he adds, GM has a second and very unlike-Apple interior option for the Volt it did not show at the centennial.

“When people say it looks like an iPod, I think it is the white color,” Greig says. “We have a metallic black interior, too, and it looks nothing like Apple.”

But, he reiterates, GM did seek an HMI similar to Apple’s, especially the organic look and feel of the company’s products.

Apple’s devices, he says, feature a weight not found on many other consumer electronics. For example, Greig compares scrolling through an iPod with flipping through an old-fashion Rolodex.

“It doesn’t stop automatically,” he says. “It just sort of runs out.”

Perhaps most of all, the company’s products are intuitive, he adds, and that makes their designs perfect for the automobile.

“You don’t need to go to the owner’s manual,” he says.

Greig also thinks people draw a strong connection between the Volt and Apple products because controls on the car’s center stack feature capacitive switches, a key element of its electric aesthetic.

“Capacitive switches give us a smooth panel,” he says. “You’re not depressing a button into a hole. They give plastic a softer edge and get people comfortable with what is in front of them.”

And because people will buy the Volt for different reasons – ranging from emissions reduction to economical factors and its tech-geek flavor – surface technology allows users to reconfigure Volt’s HMI as they please. Some drivers might want only a handful of displays, Greig says, while others might want to use all three of Volt’s trip odometer settings at the same time.

Homann says more Apple-like designs lie on the horizon, as an increase in vehicle electronics by 50.0% over the last five years hints at even greater growth to come.

“We’re taking what we have learned from consumer electronics and trying to work that into a vehicle. The difference is, whatever we do here has to be very coordinated with HMI, very safe, intuitive, and then consumers we believe are going to love it. People will want to buy it.”

– with Eric Mayne

jamend@wardsauto.com

bpope@wardsauto.com