Colourful driving

Lighting up steering wheels with Polycontact Ltd: Thomas Zaugg and his team are developing innovative visual warning systems for cars.

Even now in 2020, the concept of semi-autonomous or even fully autonomous driving still sounds a little futuristic. While 15 years ago we were still dreaming of a world where your car could creep along behind the behind the person in front in a traffic jam, be it so you could put the time to good use reading up on meeting notes, or so you could lose yourself in the landscape in a meditative state, the concept isn’t half as utopian as it was back then.

If you look out of the conference room at the passing traffic, you have to keep in mind that, in actual fact, many of today’s vehicles are already semi-autonomous or at least semi-automatic. This starts with sensors that detect whether you are strapped in or not and extends as far as automatic steering and driving – and Polycontact switches or sensors are built into almost all models of Mercedes, Porsche, Audi or VW, of which there are millions worldwide. While until recently it was seatbelt buckle switches or sensors for convertible roofs or spoiler covers, the challenge for Thomas Zaugg, Head of the Development Department of the Chur-based company for almost three years, is a new innovation: visual warning systems for autonomous driving. More specifically: an LED display built into the steering wheel which, in addition to the acoustic signal, indicates to the driver when it is time for the driver to intervene.

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Crucial fine-tuning

The colours for this are as crucial as they are intuitive: green means that the driver can relax; red means stay alert. “That sounds simple,” Thomas Zaugg. But this involves lots of switches and sensors. “The trick is to design these in such a way as to keep the production costs as low as possible and to ensure the product works at all temperatures and in all weathers. In other words, to ensure these are 100 per cent effective, because people’s lives depend on it.” And there are other challenges in the development and manufacturing process: the light should be homogeneous and should not disturb the driver, at night it shouldn’t be as bright as in the day, and the application and its components must be crash-proof.

The trend is generally moving in the direction of electric cars – in-vehicle infotainment and entertainment have almost become a standard feature in everything from small cars to luxury range saloons. Needs are changing, and demand is growing. So future expansion at Polycontact Ltd is set to focus above all on the development areas of optics and electronics. CEO Hanspeter Gauer explains: “As a small company with 280 members of staff at two locations in Switzerland and the EU country Romania, we are ideally positioned for this. We can offer fast, innovative solutions.”

 

A giant step towards more driving comfort

Customer demand is huge, and progress is fast, much faster than for previous trends in the automotive industry. While it used to take roughly six years from the presentation to the series launch of a feature with all the safety tests and approval procedures, nowadays this takes just three to four years. Polycontact Ltd has worked solidly on the development, optimisation and production of the new visual warning system both in its factory in Chur and in Romania since the initial presentation at a consumer fair in 2017 and the trade fair prototype launch at the International Automobile Exhibition (IAA) 2019. The LED steering wheel is already scheduled for the start of series production in a luxury class vehicle for 2022, the make of which Hanspeter Gauer is not yet at liberty to share. In most cases innovations like these start out in the luxury segment and then, a little later, emerge as a standard feature appearing in other classes too. All indicators point to “full steam ahead” for the Polycontact LED steering wheel – and the likelihood that the average driver will be able to give their hands a break from the steering wheel every now and then.

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