While all the fanboys were freaking out over a font change in iOS 7 earlier this week, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted Apple a patent that could dramatically reshape how the inside of your car looks (and works) in a few years.
Crediting Canadian Tim Pryor as inventor, the patent takes on the sweeping problem of a driver safely controlling onboard technology while also operating the vehicle, and draws on patents dating back to 1971. That doesn't mean that Apple's proposed onboard computer isn't unbelievably futuristic though. The patent, called "Programmable tactile touch screen displays and man-machine interfaces for improved vehicle instrumentation and telematics" — or "Digital Dash" for short — incorporates everything from laser pointer inputs to cameras that track the driver's head movements to provide innovative takes on one of the oldest problems of the automobile interface.
As the patent name suggests, the centrepiece of this potential Apple technology is a tactile display that can control many of the car's features. This isn't just a giant iPhone screen either. In order to help keep the driver's eyes on the road, the display will have a "feel" that will send the driver signals about whatever she's touching. This can include a screen with raised ridges as well as "real knobs, switches and sliders". It also stands to redirect all of the controls from either side of the dash to a big display in the centre, while enabling the auto manufacturer to customise the interface for any given model. The patent schematics point out a number of places the new technology could be installed, but number 11 is the sweet spot:
This move isn't particularly surprising — at least not on a practical level. Apple, like every company, applies for and wins patents for crazy things all the time, but that doesn't mean that the company is actually going to build them. Apple's started making moves towards the auto industry, and the Digital Dash patent is just the latest in a series of efforts to put Apple technology under the hood. Earlier this year, the company patented an iPhone-powered remote that could locate, unlock, and start your car. This served as a handy follow up to a patent last year that described a wireless remote for controlling a car's media centre from the steering wheel. And let's not forget the concrete product Apple announced just last month: "iOS in the Car" integrates Siri into the onboard computer, and makes it easier for drivers to send texts, find directions and play music.
It's unclear how automakers will feel about Apple making a big push into their territory. To be objective about the dynamics, Apple's expert knowledge ought to come in handy in an industry that tends to be a few years behind in terms of technology. As car companies failed to make their onboard computers more useful on their own, a number of companies thrived by building dash-mounted devices. It seems clear that Apple always wanted to go a stage further, which it theoretically has by redesigning the dashboard itself.
Again, patents are just patents, and could very well amount to nothing (or at least, nothing more than a lawsuit). And even if there is a finished product in some Cupertino bunker, you're certainly not going to see it in a patent filing. Apple saves the pretty things for keynotes.