There’s a clear trend towards simplification in automotive control design, even as telematics and infotainment systems get more complex. Cadillac’s CUE system, debuting in the ATS and XTS sedans, operates much like a tablet computer and is even capable of recognizing hand gestures (although this is currently disabled in the software, pending further study). In fact, Cadillac even uses an iPad app to train drivers on CUE.

Interiors being developed by Mercedes-Benz and BMW go one step further, with the ultimate goal being to replace conventional knobs, buttons and switchgear with intuitive gesture and voice recognition systems. Still in the early stages of development, such interiors could be years or even decades away.

Automotive technology supplier Harman is working on a system of its own, and it’s already progressed to the demonstration phase in Europe. Harman’s system, installed in a concept vehicle, recognizes deliberate gestures, nods and eye blinks to control audio, climate and phone commands in an effort to reduce driver distraction.

As Recombu (via Wired) explains, turning the audio system on or off takes just the blink of an eye. Volume can be upped or lowered with a head tilt, and raising or lowering the cabin temperature is a matter of waving your hand up or down near the shift lever.

Want to make a hands free call? Just throw the universal thumb-and-pinky “on the phone” sign, say a name in your address book, and the car handles the rest without requiring additional driver input.

Harman claims the infrared-sensor-based system is sophisticated enough to distinguish between intentional gestures and accidental ones, meaning that the radio won’t turn on and off every time you blink, and a sneeze isn’t likely to max the volume.

While the tech is mature enough to show off, it’s not quite ready for implementation just yet. First, the complete gesture set has to be defined to be relevant to cultures worldwide, including those who already use a lot of hand gestures (polite and otherwise).

Still, Harman expects to have its system in production within two or three years, which could beat other manufacturers to market by a significant margin.