LIVONIA, MI – The future is now, they say at Magna, and the parts supplier intends to place it at the driver’s fingertips.

Magna has begun shopping to auto makers what it calls Intelligent Surface Technology, a human-machine interface integrating several layers of revolutionary materials and electronics with the smartphone.

Magna starts with “Touchskin,” a 3-dimensional surface overlay replacing mechanical switches, sliders and wheels with capacitive electronics to navigate through the onboard computer system’s menu.

Touchskin covers a central operating tool similar to a computer mouse but one that remains in a fixed position. The driver or passenger navigates the computer system by tapping, dragging, flicking and rotating their hands and fingertips around the tool.

Magna considers it the most natural way of interaction between human and machine. Imagine, for example, starting the vehicle with the swipe of a finger. Or Touchskin could be applied to an interior door panel and the driver would adjust the vehicle’s exterior mirrors by tapping a touch-sensitive area on the grab handle.

“The options are endless,” says Mike West, manager-product and process development at Magna’s Exteriors and Interior unit here.

Touchskin surface technology comes from Plastic Electronic, a producer of multi-surface products. Hueck Folien produces the 3-dimensional film for the Touchskin, using a high-pressure forming method from Niebling Form Technologies.

An innovative mould and process technology from Schoferallows the combination of Touchskin with other materials.

Another new material called Clearmelt is a high-gloss, extra-resistant surface for the HMI. Its greatest attribute might be its self-healing properties, where nicks and scrapes disappear over a short period.

Coating-company Votteler, and Schofer, Engel Mould Technologies and Hennecke Polyurethane contribute work to Clearmelt.

A Magna-exclusive technology known as Integrated Device Molding Procedure (IDMP) marries the smartphone to the vehicle onboard computer via a wireless connection. But it uses no Bluetooth or Internet connection to unite the two; instead, it relies on emerging Qi standard transmitters mandated for cellular phones this year.

The transmitter coil in the phone connects to electronics embedded in the HMI console through a “near-field” connection.

“We saw Qi coming, and now we are ahead of the game,” West says. “It’s safer, too. It’s not a hackable field like Bluetooth or the Internet. It is a protected field.”

The smartphone also charges through the near-field connection, which can expand up to 0.4 ins. (1.0 cm) and maintain a connection. Dust, dirt, loose change or even water will not affect data exchange or charging.

Magna weds the electronics into the plastic cover of the HMI console with a formable copper foil. Shape possibilities are practically unlimited, West says.

“That technology is not terribly new,” he admits. “It just wasn’t going anywhere. We saw the potential others overlooked.”

In the seating concept Magna uses to demonstrate how it brought all the pieces together into an HMI, a smartphone snaps to either side of the center console through a magnetic field. However, West says the early applications, likely will use a small pocket.

Intelligent Surface Technology provides additional benefits, such as lighter weight by cutting down on wiring, Magna says. It also reduces parts complexity, assembly time and component cost and heightens driver awareness by reducing the reach required by current touchscreens.

Eliminating switchgear also enables new levels of design freedom, West says.

Expect the technologies contained in Magna’s Intelligent Surface Technology, which the supplier can scale and customize to OEM specifications, to reach automotive applications sometime around 2014.

jamend@wardsauto.com