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February 16, 2022

Will the Automotive Industry Ever Truly Embrace 8K?

We have already covered many of CES 2022’s major announcements concerning TV technology with many pieces on TCL, Samsung, Sony, etc. But a few other reports caught our eye yet required further analysis to understand what was going on. Specifically, we read news about 8K displays in concept cars from BMW (Theater screen) and Mercedes Benz (Vision EQXX). But the published information was relatively thin, so we reached out to a subject matter expert to put these ideas in context.

François Nivelle is the Innovation & Advanced Engineering Manager at global automotive supplier Marelli’s Electronics division. Nivelle specializes in Human Machine Interface design in the cockpit.

Digital displays have only entered the cockpit at the turn of the century with 3.5″ TFT LCDs. Nivelle pointed out that it took almost 20 years to break beyond 12″ displays. He thinks we need another five years to democratize automotive screens beyond 20″.

The concept of “high resolution” needs some clarification in the cockpit. Today, over 80% of displays in cars are between 160 and 200 PPI. That’s between a half and a third of the pixel density of a mobile phone. There are multiple reasons for this:

  1. Some data must be visible even in direct sunlight requiring extreme brightness.
  2. With 80M cars produced in a year, the industry consumes 150M screens per year. These volumes cannot compete with TVs or smartphones. Older production lines build automotive screens, typically with lower resolution.
  3. Most cockpit-specific content doesn’t require high resolution (e.g., speed indication).
  4. Only passenger screens justify high resolution, but that’s an even lower volume market.
  5. Powering high-res screens requires more processing power and data than today’s cars have.

Composite Screens

Very high-end cars on the road today – with a sophisticated dashboard – will typically have 2K to 3K resolution screens. Note that the high-end Chinese market has been pushing up to 40″ screens over the last two to three years. Byton, a Chinese EV startup – often verging on bankruptcy – has shown dashboard screens above 45″ in resolutions of at least 4K resolution.

Byton Dashboard

However, most automakers use separate displays optically bonded into one larger screen when they talk about giant screens. This more straightforward approach has several significant advantages. Firstly, the resolution is more manageable, and secondly, dedicated features can conveniently be displayed on different screen sections. Third, optical bonding reduces reflections and makes the screens much more readable in bright ambients. Mercedes announced the MBUX Hyperscreen over a year ago and this is a prototypical example of such a bonded screen.

Mercedes MBUX Hyperscreen

Safety and Environmental Concerns

Cockpit screens have specific draconian safety requirements defined by the ASIL or ISO 2626-2 standards. For example, a few dead pixels will be nothing more than a minor annoyance while watching an action movie. But dead pixels can be a real safety issue when displaying a safety pictogram, such as a potential brake failure icon. Because such a risk is unacceptable in the automotive industry, cockpit screens need dedicated functionality in their video drivers to manage this issue. Such features are not typically available on mass-produced screens. These security constraints are another reason why it’s much easier, for now, to create “composite large screens” by assembling several smaller ones.

Any automobile can be driven closer to one of the Earth’s poles or higher up a mountain than ever anticipated. Essential parts of cockpit screens must work in sub-freezing conditions as a car must start even at -40°C without any frozen liquid crystals getting in the way.

Automotive trends and 8K

As per the CES announcements, Nivelle agreed that there is nevertheless a trend towards larger screens in the car with much flatter screen ratios than the 16/9 of the sitting room. Indeed the BMW 31-inch, 8K “Theatre Screen” announced at CES has a very flat ratio at 32:9, so 8Kx2K resolution instead of the 8Kx4K resolution of an 8K TV. Ford also discussed this screen that will use a dedicated Fire TV OS for cars. The solution comes with 5G data access, and Bowers & Wilkins surround sound. It generated plenty of CE buzz and is an excellent 8K for automotive case study, but only time will tell if it can go beyond a luxury niche.

BMW 31″ Theatre – Click to launch YouTube video

While the video above shows a stretched 16:9 movie playing on a 32:9 aspect screen. The UI could also play the movie in a 16:9 window in the center of the screen giving room on either side for ancillary content like social media, email, movie info, etc.

Business and consumer benefits of automotive 8K

One open question on BMW’s vision is whether one or both of the big OTT video providers or the carmakers will find a way to monetize entertainment services that use 8K screens in cars for an effective business model.

Nivelle was enthusiastic though that “there will be a true benefit for consumers once all the issues discussed here are resolved.”

He told me how automakers are eagerly exploring the latest developments in screen technology, such as local dimming to lower power consumption, HDR for a more realistic effect, and a high frame rate to improve fluidity.

The case for 8K in cars

With all the constraints described above, one of the main drivers for 8K+ resolution is the virtual hyper-screen. Here, content is projected onto the entire windshield. Within this concept, Augmented Reality (AR) typically offers warnings about a pedestrian that might cross the road. If the pedestrian is very far ahead, the notification must fall precisely on the right person, hence the need for very high resolutions as well as an extended field of view, probably across the whole windscreen. Such a solution would more typically be classified as a Head-up Display (HUD).

We’re always complaining about the screen being too far away to appreciate high resolution or too close to see it all. Inside an automobile, the distance is pretty much fixed at around one meter. This distance could erroneously imply that 200 PPI is enough. We now know this is not the case as the human visual system sees more detail than the mind consciously records, especially for peripheral vision movement detection.

Automakers have embraced larger screens, with the transition from 2K to 3K and 4K underway today. Nivelle expects the move to 8K to start in five years and be the norm in around ten years. This vision is dependent on improvement in battery technology and video technology’s energy sobriety. As we go all-electric, with today’s screens, energy consumption, and current battery technology, every extra watt that can be saved for mileage will be needed.

Could there also be a generational divide in trying to understand the appeal of large screens in a car? We still often think of the automobile as if we were still in the fifties, a symbol of freedom, equality, or space. High-end immersive screens are only likely to be needed on a few trips a year. Younger generations may understand this better, and in any case, they use their own devices in transportation.

Wrap

Wrapping up my conversation with Nivelle, I realized how cost-effective the automotive industry has become. Despite much lower volumes compared to phones or TVs, most people’s cars have features way beyond what they have in their homes. Just check out the AC, seat quality, screen brightness, or audio.

One way or another, it is likely only a matter of time before the 8K video experience is part of the automobile experience going beyond mere 8K displays in concept cars.

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