QNX is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of, when it comes to in-car tech. Wholly owned by RIM of BlackBerry fame, the company’s on-board operating system sees service in the vehicles of most car manufacturers you care to name and in more than 11m vehicles that are on the roads.
It is companies like QNX, through its development of new tech, that ultimately have the greatest impact on how your car’s on-board technology and interfaces will look in a few years’ time.
So its "Car platform 2.0" concept - demoing in a Bentley Continental GTC - shown at CES is a pretty big deal. While we were getting a hands-on, the head of Bentley himself came over to have a look. Just before we got in, the president of Audi USA was having a poke around.
Its demo features a giant, Texas Instruments-supplied, 17-inch touchscreen in portrait format - it’s not all too dissimilar to the one we went hands-on with in the Tesla Model S in appearance. Except that to call it a touchscreen in the sense that we currently understand capacitive and resistive screens would be a mistake. Instead, this is a DLP (digital light projection) screen, which projects its info from behind, and works out where you’re making contact with it not by changes in electrical current, but by your finger making a white light in its vision.
The benefit of such a system is that the screen can be curved and - QNX says - at this size, it’s much cheaper than a (flat) capacitive touch screen would be. It also allows what we thought was the concept’s coolest feature. Bentley’s normal feature of the Breitling clock has been taken over - space wise - by the screen. So QNX has moved it down low in front of the gear lever, and made a digital representation of the clock - surrounded by a lovely thick chrome bezel. You then use the bezel as the one physical, analogue interface point, to adjust radio volume, fan speed, climate temperature and so on.
The system also proximity senses your hand as you approach the screen, pulling up a menu before your hand’s hit it, for the satnav, radio and so on. And the big screen means it’s easy to have multiple pieces of information on one page - or should you prefer, a huge plan-view, 3D satnav map.
Beyond the screen, QNX had also fitted a digital screen in place of Bentley’s tradition dials - replacing them with hi-fidelity digital versions - and when you select reverse, a huge camera rear view, which sees in stereoscopic 3D - allowing you to perceive depth in a way current rear-cameras don’t. Don't worry, it is glasses free.
It's developed an app, for BlackBerry of course, which allows you to start the car remotely, put the windows up and down, locks it and so on. Don’t bet against your phone replacing your car key before too long.
Making the whole lot sing and work together is the QNX operating system - and what really struck us about this set-up, was the speed of response. One of our biggest bugbears in current cars is the "hit the screen - wait for it to beep - wait for the map you want it to bring up" slowness, which makes your car seem archaic compared to your phone. Here, there’s none of that and instead you get super-fast response, quick scrolling and ultra-quick render times.
Given that Bentley unofficially endorsed the project and QNX’s automotive omnipresence, come 5-years' time, based on this evidence, your car’s multimedia interface might no-longer seem out of date compared to your phone. That's got to be a good thing.