Once the preserve of control panels on the Starship Enterprise, touch technology is now central to some of the most popular gadgets, including smartphones and satellite-navigation systems.

It'll soon take over much of our car interiors too, says electronics firm Magna. The company has been working on what it calls Intelligent Surface Technology, a system of seamlessly integrating materials and electronics.

According to Wards Auto (via Autoblog), a concept called Touchskin is central to Intelligent Surface Technology.

Touchskin replaces traditional switches, knobs, sliders and buttons with capacitive electronics not unlike those you'll find on an iPod. All the functions of regular switches are therefore controlled by typical touch interactions like taps, swipes and pinches, depending on the control you're operating.

The possibilities are endless, and Magna considers it a more natural interaction between man and machine. Starting the car could be achieved with a simple swipe of a finger, interior temperature raised or lowered by a small sweep of the fingers on the center stack, or mirrors adjusted by tracing your finger on the right area of the door grab handle.

That would open up many more possibilities with regards to car interior design, with no more constraints over button placement--and the corresponding miles of wiring--and much more thought given to ergonomics. As an entirely touch-based system, it's also less distracting for drivers--with no need to take your eyes off the road, like you might with a conventional touch-screen.

This would then start to approach the levels of usability and tactility highlighed by companies like Renault when they design concept cars, without affecting the basics, like the placement of major controls.

Touchskin would also be joined by what Magna describes as Integrated Device Molding Procedure (IDMP) via a Qi transmitter.

This uses a near-field connection to charge devices like smartphones placed on the relevant surface, and also to exhange information between the car and the device. Magna says that, unlike the internet or Bluetooth, Qi connections cannot be hacked into, making it safer and more secure.

Throw in a glossy, 'Clearmelt' surface, that not only transmits commands but even heals itself of scratches and chips over time, and your future car interior will be a very different place from the one you use today.

So when is the future coming? It's likely to evolve over time, but Magna expects the first automotive applications by 2014, scaled to suit various OEM requirements.