Smart fabric may be used in future BMW models

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BMW may be integrating smart fabrics into future models. Image: quatre mains/Flickr/CC BY

In the fiercely competitive automotive industry, automakers are always looking for ways to integrate the latest technology into the vehicles they make. As modern cars do more and more things, electronically speaking, more instrumentation is also required. This can lead to crowded consoles and confusing interfaces. Touchscreens have already become commonplace in new vehicles. Another possible solution to dashboard crowding — currently being explored by BMW — is touch-sensitive smart fabrics.

Creates touch-sensitive pad when charged

Smart fabrics, also known as e-textiles, are fabrics woven with digital components. When the fiber is charged with alternating current, it creates a pad that is sensitive to touches and swipes. By touching a certain section of the seat for example, or perhaps by sliding a finger across a line on the upholstery, a driver could conceivably control the music volume, the heat or the air conditioning.

Smart cloth comes clean

Previous attempts at making smart textiles suffered because they could not be cleaned without destroying the functionality of the fabric. Not so with the new bolts of smart cloth BMW is looking at. It cleans up like any other upholstery and keeps doing its job.

The origins of smart fabrics

The scientist most associated with the development of smart fabrics is Rehmi Post, who earned his Master of Science degree at MIT while developing “e-broidery.” However, the specific incarnation being studied by BMW was developed at the Polytechnic School of Montreal, Canada. The fabric’s development team was led by professor Maksim Skorobogatiy, and was chronicled in the journal New Scientist.

Technology refined

The fabric is made of woven flexible, polymer-based fibers — a conductive plastic — and is similar to Teflon, according to C|Net. While the technology is not ground-breaking, it has been refined to a great degree in order to reliably control a range of functions. The fabric is sensitive to different types of touches.

[Luxury at a low price — Momentum BMW, Houston, TX]  

When technology will appear is uncertain

BMW has not issued a timeline as to when the technology may find its way into consumer vehicles. However, the New Scientist piece did say that automakers GM and Bombardier are also taking a serious look at the technology.

Could have practical drawbacks

The technology, though intriguing, could also face some challenges in terms of practicality. For instance, what is to prevent an accidental swipe on the car seat by the driver or a passenger from cranking the radio up to ear-splitting volumes? The problem becomes exacerbated for cars used as family vehicles.

As Liane Yvkoff of CNet wrote:

“Parents juggling sippy cups or drivers who dine behind the wheel will tell you that this is probably a bad idea.”


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