How Childhood Trains and Tools Shaped the Future of Digital Dashboard Design

by Samantha Zee

Rusty appliances. Defunct stereos. Jagged scraps of lumber.

Some parents give their seven-year-old children balls and bats to play with. When Dave Anderson’s parents saw him filling the family garage with wreckage, they gave him a power drill and tools. “Go make something,” they told him. So he did.

That was Dave’s entrée into engineering. Now far from the family garage in Aurora, Ohio, Dave leads our Automotive Integration team, which develops applications for the NVIDIA DRIVE CX digital cockpit computer. It’s technology that’s helping shape the future of digital dashboards in vehicles.

NVIDIA-designed digital dashboard in BMW
NVIDIA-designed digital dashboard in BMW

From the Tesla Model S cluster and infotainment systems to the new Audi A3’s MMI platform, NVIDIA is a pioneer in digital dashboard design. And it’s still early days.

“We’re building and developing a product from the ground up,” said Dave. “It’s an opportunity to create and deliver something our industry’s never seen before.”

Tinker, Hack, Invent

Dave was part of the “Maker Movement” before it had a name. If neighborhood kids needed something made, they’d knock on his door. Armed with his drill and other tools, he built toy go carts, doll houses, lemonade stands, tree forts and other contraptions. Then he got interested in computers’ insides.

Childhood Inspirtion: a Marx Train Caboose
Childhood inspiration: a Marx Train Caboose

His fascination with engineering grew after his mother shared her childhood Marx train set with him. Soon enough, he’d constructed a multi-part railway in the family basement. He set up complex control systems to autonomously run the trains, turn lights on and off, and make familiar railway sounds.

Dave’s love of building and tinkering informed the internships he had while an engineering student at Purdue University.

At automotive electronics supplier Visteon Corp., he helped design a user interface for a navigation system used by Ford that went to production in Lincoln’s Navigator and Ford’s Escape models.

The project, ground-breaking for its time, led Dave to file his first patent before he earned his degree.

Super-Cool Demos

Dave’s the go-to guy when it comes to making cool, highly functional demos for the Consumer Electronics Show, our GPU Technology Conference (GTC) and other events where we feature the supercomputing power we’re squeezing into cars.

At this year’s GTC, we wanted to showcase our auto integration at its most spectacular. This required a stripped-down car frame outfitted with 12 camera modules for video processing of surround vision, forward vision, blind spot detection, mirror replacement and driver state monitoring. They’d all connect to a self-driving car computer, the DRIVE PX module.

The drawback? No car.

Chevy Camaro designed by Dave Anderson and NVIDIA's Automotive Integration team for GTC 2015
Chevy Camaro designed by Dave Anderson and NVIDIA’s Automotive Integration team for GTC 2015

Within a week, Dave and his team found a wrecked 2008 Chevy Camaro in southwest Detroit, stripped it down, aligned the body and sandblasted it smooth.

Using high-grade automotive painting techniques, they turned the car a lustrous silver before dispatching it across the country to the San Jose convention center.

There, with trusty power tools in hand, Dave and team ran wires, cut holds into the frame, ground shapes to fit cameras and installed the electronics. When the show opened, all systems were go — and the car was a huge hit.

The demo’s powerful, see-through frame lent a sculptural element to the display of advanced, usually invisible, electronics. For Dave, it was a perfect marrying of high-tech engineering with high-concept artistry.