Did Tesla partner Panasonic just hint at new Model 3 features?

Guest Blog Post: Charles Morris is the Senior Editor of Charged, the magazine of electric vehicles, for which he writes a daily blog and regular print articles. He's also written five books including Tesla Motors: How Elon Musk and Company Made Electric Cars Cool, and Sparked the Next Tech Revolution.

One of the many aspects of automobiles that Tesla Motors [NASDAQ: TSLA] has redefined is the user interface. In a world of high-def TV and smartphones, the user displays in most cars look at least a decade behind the times. The large 17" touchscreen in current Tesla vehicles is the most advanced UI on the roads, but many are wondering if the forthcoming Tesla Model 3 will introduce something that truly reflects the state of the art. Such speculation is fueled by the fact that the company has been secretive about what the interior of the upcoming vehicle will look like.


Above: Panasonic proudly showcases their partnership with Tesla (Image: CMEC)

Perhaps information can be gleaned from one of Tesla's partners? Panasonic is, undoubtedly, Tesla's most significant automotive partner. The company is investing billions in the Gigafactory developing Tesla's lithium-ion batteries. And after Tesla acquired SolarCity, Panasonic was announced as the partner collaborating on the manufacturing and production of photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules. Furthermore, at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Panasonic prominently displayed a Model X, Tesla Supercharger, and their new 2170 battery cell to be used in the Model 3...


Above: Inside the Pansonic booth at CES, Tesla's presence is felt (Youtube: Electrek)

Could a new vehicle display system recently revealed by Panasonic be a foreshadowing of what Tesla has up its sleeve? Remember — Elon Musk tweeted: "Wait until you see the real steering controls and system for the 3. It feels like a spaceship." Since then, it's been radio silence. But at CES, Tesla partner Panasonic revealed a new system that featured a head-up display (HUD) and augmented reality (AR). This sophisticated HUD system is capable of projecting large virtual images in the driver’s eye line, using AR to give drivers information and even warn them of potential dangers. It replaces the traditional instrument cluster and many of the car’s physical controls.


Above: Panasonic shows off its prototype HUD at CES (Youtube: Panasonic Automotive Systems Europe)

Panasonic’s HUD system can project large virtual images of up to 12 degrees horizontal and 5 degrees vertical into the driver’s line of sight, at a distance of 33 feet in front of the vehicle. It uses eight cameras, including two that track the driver’s head and eyes. The cameras can detect the sides of the road and use them as reference points to place the AR imagery in the driver’s line of vision, updating constantly to follow the driver’s head movements.


Above: Concept video demonstrates Panasonic’s overarching vision of an electronic cockpit, featuring HUD, multiple state-of-the-art displays and touchless operation (Youtube: Panasonic Automotive Systems Europe)

Unlike most previously seen head-up displays, Panasonic’s new system replaces the instrument cluster and many of the car’s physical controls. The idea is to eliminate the need for the driver to take his or her eyes off the road. Three separate fascia screens respond to gesture control, allowing navigation, audio and other vehicle systems to be controlled with just a wave of the hand. The days of the classic dashboard switch would seem to be numbered.


Above: Could this be what's in store for Tesla's landscape display currently shown inside the Model 3's interior? (Youtube: Panasonic Automotive Systems Europe)

“Every day on our roads, drivers are subjected to multiple distractions. At Panasonic we want to make the business of driving as enjoyable, safe and comfortable as possible, which is why we have developed this next-generation Head Up Display system,” said the head of Panasonic’s Infotainment division in Europe, Andreas Heitmann. “Paired with Augmented Reality and multiple cameras, its capability is enormous and it will make the lives of drivers much simpler and more enjoyable when behind the wheel.” Along with the cockpit, Panasonic even took a swing at what the future might look like in the cabin of a fully autonomous vehicle...


Above: Panasonic also shows off their futuristic autonomous cabin concept (Youtube: Panasonic Automotive Systems Europe)

Any connection with Tesla is, of course, speculation at this point. We’re not aware of any publicly announced plans for Panasonic to supply anything other than battery-related technology for Model 3. But given the two companies’ close cooperation, and the expectation that Tesla will continue to equip its vehicles with the most modern user interface technology available, it’s not too far-fetched to guess that Panasonic’s demonstration may serve as a heads-up as to the future of driving.

Update: More clues were actually revealed later in the week. On Jan. 19th, Reuters reported that Panasonic's Chief Executive Officer Kazuhiro Tsuga said in an interview, ""We are deeply interested in Tesla's self-driving system. We are hoping to expand our collaboration by jointly developing devices for that, such as sensors."


*Source: CarScoops, The Telegraph, New Atlas