Lexus Hybrids Merge Mouse, Monitor and Windshield

New nationwide laws to discourage driving while texting are in the works, but no law will stop the rapidly expanding number of electronic devices and screens from encroaching upon the driving experience. The center-mounted touch screen on hybrids has been one of the worst offenders—as drivers look over and reach over to monitor mileage, energy use or adjust climate and entertainment functions. Fortunately, car designers are beginning to borrow from the best in personal computer interface design to address these issues. Lexus hybrids—such as the Lexus HS 250h arriving in showrooms in a few weeks—provide a good example of how the merger of car and computer might help drivers keep their eyes on the road.

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Top: Mouse-like control of screen functions.
Bottom: The Lexus HS 250h cockpit meets the computer work station.

Cars with Built-in Mouse Pads

The Lexus HS 250h and RX 450h hybrids place an oversized monitor more in line with the driver’s field of vision, and control of that monitor where the driver’s hand would naturally fall. A hand rest contoured to fit your palm has a small finger pad that works like a trackball. It’s connected wirelessly to the vehicles infotainment system, and moves a cursor across the screen. An "Enter" button on either side of the hand rest provides point and click functionality.

“This is much more like navigating a smart phone or any other kind of consumer electronics than what you think of as rather arcane interfaces in a lot of cars today,” said Brian Cooley, CNet’s Cartech Editor at large.

Lexus calls the system “Remote Touch,” and it’s a big improvement over the previous generation of dials that force you to scroll through cryptic or cumbersome choices.

The mouse/joystick/trackball thingy also employs "haptic" technology that adjusts the resistance felt by the driver. The driver feels like the pointer is gravitating toward, and locking into, the big icons on the screen. The feeling is similar to a bump or rolling a ball over a flat surface and into a depression, and is reminiscent of the Wii controller.

Vehicles equipped with the nav package also feature a “casual-speech voice recognition system” that means not having to touch anything. Users say “Find XM Channel 150” or “Make it cooler” to affect entertainment or climate functions. In a step that will add, rather than reduce, distractions, Lexus recently rolled its “Enform” infotainment package that brings weather, sports, and stocks to the center monitor. (Warning: Watching the performance of stocks in your 401k is a sure fire way to get into an accident.)

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The Lexus heads-up display projects information and icons on to the windshield.

The final step in blurring the lines between the real and virtual worlds is the Lexus heads up system. Your speed and other control systems are projected directly out in front of the vehicle as if floating on the road. If you’re using the navigation system to plot your route, an arrow will be projected before you get to your next turn. The “Lane Keep Assist” system uses a special camera and sensors to warn you that you are drifting in the next lane. If you start to leave the lane, the system will alert you and even try to steer the vehicle back into its lane.

When Jalopnik posted on the Lexus Remote technology, one commenter named Jo Schmo wrote, “So the shifter is shoved off to the side to allow a mouse to take its place? What is the world coming to?” The reply from sos10 was, “It’s a hybrid.”

Jo Schomo wrote back, “Good point. I suppose it won’t be long before cars are drive-by-mouse anyway. Right click to exit car, roll down windows, etc.”

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