Lincoln, Ford’s luxury arm, redesigned its Nautilus luxury midsize SUV for model year 2024. Updates include a distinctive flat-top two-spoke steering wheel and a new hybrid powertrain option, among other niceties. But the biggest news for the Nautilus is its giant, future-forward immersive panoramic infotainment screen.
Paired with a smaller touchscreen in the center stack, the panoramic display is set up to show an array of information the driver can customize. Important information like the speedometer and fuel gauge are in roughly the traditional spot behind the steering wheel. Important, but not critical information like tire pressure, weather, clock, and media are all pushed to the right side of the screen.
When the car is in Park, the driver also has access to gaming, video streaming apps, and soon, Ford says, video conferencing. The brand set out to build a customizable platform that can be inserted into a variety of vehicles, including future EVs. Knowing that EVs take longer to charge up than it takes to fuel a gas-powered car, the video apps seem to be a way to keep EV drivers distracted and productive while sitting at a charger.
The panoramic setup, which sits atop the dashboard, is the highest-resolution display Ford–and by extension, Lincoln–has ever offered. Beyond the sheer size of the 48-inch-wide screen, the company went way beyond its comfort zone to create a digital experience unlike anything it has accomplished in the past. We’ve seen it, and it’s impressive.
The squircle-shaped steering wheel is one way to access the SUV’s digital information, equipped with matching “d-pads” (directional pads) to navigate the controls. A d-pad is typically thumb operated and oriented like a plus sign, like a gaming console.
Upping the cool factor (but serving no readily apparent functional purpose), a real-time avatar spins in 3D on the touchscreen, matching the vehicle’s color and wheels. For this application, Ford tapped Unreal Engine to render it on the fly. Unreal Engine is a software framework and creation tool developed by Epic Games, the mastermind behind the wildly popular game Fortnite.
Ford’s gaming theme doesn’t stop there; it launched an exclusive version of the Asphalt Nitro 2 game, complete with a Shelby GT350R muscle car avatar. Gaming is limited to times when the vehicle is parked and can be played on the touchscreen or with any Bluetooth-capable controller. Bluetooth enables a keyboard connection to the screen as well, allowing vehicle occupants to use the Vivaldi freeware browser. Ford says it will transition to Google Chrome at some point in the future, and video conferencing apps are also on the table. These extend the work-from-anywhere option, allowing people to use their car as an office. The vehicle must be parked, not idling, to access any of these video-focused applications.
Video streaming is now available with the new system on apps like YouTube, PBS Kids, and Amazon Prime; again, while parked. This could be a pleasant way to spend a few minutes in the parking lot while waiting for the kids to get out of school or in the cell phone lot at the airport, for example. At this juncture, riders in the passenger seat can’t watch videos while the car is moving. But Ford says it’s “definitely looking at it.”
The panoramic screen is a showpiece for the software, which is now developed in-house at Ford. Director of Future Product, EV Digital Experiences and Services Zafar Razzacki says the development cycle began about two years ago, a long time in tech but a relatively short period compared to typical vehicle development.
“Bringing software in-house is a newer capability,” Razzacki told PopSci. “In the past, we typically relied on suppliers for hardware and software development. Bringing that in-house brings increased speed and quality and lower cost that we can pass on to the customer.”
General Motors caused a commotion last year by announcing its decision to go with a Google-based system, effectively eliminating access to Android and Apple CarPlay. Not so for Ford, which embraces the phone-mirroring applications for its customers’ Android and iOS devices.
“We are very committed to offering a choice,” Christian Dodd, Senior Design Director on Ford’s digital teamsaid. “We have great relationships with Apple and Google.”
For all platforms, Ford is encouraging the use of voice-assist controls, which helps to keep the driver’s hands on the wheel. Voice controls are typically laggy, however, discouraging widespread use. The company says it’s working to improve that latency, but that it sees a real benefit by using it more regularly.
Organizations like AAA, however, have warned of the dangers of distracted driving from touchscreens and voice commands. We haven’t seen any laws on the books regulating in-vehicle screens or voice commands, but the data is startling.
“Drivers using in-vehicle technologies such as voice-based and touch screen features were visually and mentally distracted for more than 40 seconds when completing tasks like programming navigation or sending a text message,” says the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Even so, automakers are finding themselves in a race for the biggest and best screen. If they don’t, they risk losing sales to companies leaping ahead on the digital side. Ford says it’s cognizant of the dangers technology can post, and it’s actively working toward finding ways to make its infotainment as safe as it can.
Balance between physical knobs and touchscreen controls is important on the safety side. Ford seems to be working toward finding that balance by implementing the d-pads and a large volume knob on the console that eliminates the multiple taps often required to make adjustments without physical controls. Figuring out what works best requires eye-movement tracking tests, both virtual and in the car, Dodd says.
“There are going to be some features that require two to three clicks into the interface and the voice control will be more convenient,” Razzacki told us. “I think it depends on the application you’re using. You’ll see there are still some physical controls, like a big volume knob and d-pad controllers.”
New Lincoln owners will have to tackle a learning curve, and Ford is shoring up a video library along with dealership instruction at the point of sale. The brand says it’s exploring and learning, and will adapt to customers needs as they develop.