Aerospace eyes flat-panel display growth in automobile market

KOKOMO, Ind. - Defense and aerospace display integrators should take note of the changes occurring in the transportation market. A consensus is emerging that automobiles could soon start using significant numbers of flat-panel displays. Since the environmental and performance specs of automotive displays are similar to aerospace displays, vendors may want to take a new look at the opportunities here.

Oct 1st, 1998

Aerospace eyes flat-panel display growth in automobile market

By Chris Chinnock

KOKOMO, Ind. - Defense and aerospace display integrators should take note of the changes occurring in the transportation market. A consensus is emerging that automobiles could soon start using significant numbers of flat-panel displays. Since the environmental and performance specs of automotive displays are similar to aerospace displays, vendors may want to take a new look at the opportunities here.

Yet industry officials warn that to compete in this market, military or aerospace integrators must compete with big Asian producers, so they will need to have a strong focus on producing cost-effective products.

"The major flat-panel manufacturers recognize that the automotive is now a viable market. In the next three years, I think demand for flat panels will soar," says Jerry Witt, manager of advanced displays and control systems at Delphi Delco Electronic Systems in Kokomo, Ind.

Rob Harrison, Hyundai`s general manager for their display division in San Jose, Calif., concurs. "If AMLCDs [active-matrix liquid crystal displays] for in-car entertainment and information systems take off, it could actually upset the demand curve," he says. "There is the potential to place over a million displays in automobiles by the year 2002."

The active-matrix LCD looks like the technology that is in the best position to move into automotive products, industry experts say. While these displays were used in some autos previously, U.S. consumers believed their performance was inferior, so they were quietly dropped.

But Asian and European vehicles kept the flat panels and continued to improve them. By leveraging these technical advancements, LCD manufacturers are now ready to make a comeback in the U.S. automotive market.

One of the issues that had hampered acceptance of LCD was their limited temperature range. The automotive market needs components that operate over a -40 to 85 degrees Celsius temperature range - not much different from many aerospace and military vehicle requirements. Achieving operation over these ranges is possible, but has historically been an expensive proposition.

For example, cold-temperature operation is particularly troubling for LCDs, in which the liquid crystal materials are slow and produce a sluggish response. Backlights loose efficiency in cold temperatures, so the displays can be dim. At high temperature, meanwhile, the polarizing materials can degrade and the liquid crystal material can lose all contrast.

LCD manufacturers have worked on these problems as they develop custom liquid crystal formulations, new materials, and components. Witt notes that most of the panels that Delphi Delco engineers are working with operate well over a -30 to 70 C ambient temperature range without the need for an internal heater. "That is now close enough in the minds of the major automobile producers to begin implementation," Witt says. "But in parallel, they are also rethinking the temperature requirement."

A second area of major improvements has come in EMC performance. Radiated emissions and susceptibility to interference are big concerns in the automotive market - just like military and aerospace vehicles. Displays and in close proximity to many other high frequency or high noise instruments, and so, must pass rigorous EMC testing - much tougher than FCC requirements for laptop displays, for instance. But industry appears to have risen to the challenge by producing displays that are acceptable.

So why the big interest in flat panels all of a sudden? First, performance has improved so they are now acceptable to U.S. vehicle manufacturers. Second, there is demand pull from consumers who want more information and entertainment in their vehicles - and flat-panel graphics displays are the best way to do this. Third, LCD manufacturers can use older plants to make displays they may actually sell at a profit, since much of the demand for automotive displays will be small-sized devices.

Among the developing applications are car navigation systems that show global positioning system data and/or maps on a center console display, or turn-by-turn instructions on a heads-up display. Trip computers and reconfigurable dashboards will need graphic displays that vacuum fluorescent devices aren`t ready to handle.

Mobile office devices are also in the offing that enable users to access e-mail, faxes, and maybe even the Internet. Microsoft executives are interested in this one. Finally, entertainment that can show TV, or run movies from DVD players, has big potential. What is more, many of these products may not only be fixed in the vehicle. They could be docked portable devices that users can take with then when they leave the car.

For entertainment applications, displays with a 16-to-9 aspect ratio will probably be popular. But they are also of interest for other applications. "The styling people love them," Witt says. In addition, automotive displays do not have to be locked into the resolutions and form factors of either entertainment or computer displays, since the market potential is big enough to justify custom display development.

Other flat panel displays may yet vie for some of these applications, however. Engineers at the Motorola Flat Panel Display Division in Tempe, Ariz., are working on field emitter displays (FEDs) which they are targeting for the automotive market.

Motorola`s FEDs have advantages in wide temperature range, wide viewing angle, and lower power than AMLCDs - especially for the sunlight readability needed in an automotive environment, notes Barry Moehring, Motorola`s marketing manager. "By the end of 1999, we expect to see FEDs in portable GPS, entertainment, or combination products," Moehring says.

Organic displays also have a fighting change. Tokyo`s Pioneer Electronic Corp. has already commercialized an organic light emitting diode device for a car radio. The optical characteristics of the devices are well regarded for automotive applications.

Although some aerospace and defense contractors clearly are looking at the opportunities in the transportation market, cost is the biggest issue in these markets, says Greg Martz, marketing manager at Interstate Electronics in Anaheim, Calif. "We have to lower our display prices by perhaps 50 percent from what we have charged military customers," he says. "Much of those displays were custom designed, but for the transportation market, we have to use a COTS approach."

Silviu Palalau, a principle engineer at the UT Automotive Center in Dearborn, Mich., agrees about the need for lowering costs, but adds a couple of more points. "Display integrators need to think about being able to handle 100,000 panels per year," Palalau says. "Low cost and that kind of volume requires a mental attitude that many aerospace and defense contractors may not be able to accommodate."

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