MADISON, Wis. — Smartphones, tablets, PCs, TVs, set-tops, game consoles, and other consumer electronics devices have undergone a user interface (UI) revolution: voice, touch, gesture, a carousel on the screen, handwriting recognition, you name it. Even though these technologies are often far less than perfect and not always successful, consumer electronics OEMs continue their quest to establish their brands by fiddling with the UI.
By mid-2013, whatever the electronics industry has learned (and whatever consumers have gotten used to) in the human-machine interface (HMI) is now coming fast and furious to the automotive world.
In the HMI battle, stakes are high for automakers. As more drivers bring smartphones and tablets into cars, carmakers, if they're not careful, could find their automotive dashboards -- which used to be unique to each brand -- rendered obsolete, replaced by advanced consumer electronics.
Look no further than what a chip company, Nvidia, is proposing to the automotive industry. Earlier this year, Nvidia's Tegra team showed off prototypes of automotive dashboards they're hoping to put into cars of the future.
Nvidia's Tegra team shows off car dashboards of the future.
If Nvidia has its way, gone will be the classic mechanical knobs and dials that have defined the dashboard for most of a century. Dashboard designs would essentially become like skins that users can swap on the fly.
Further, Nvidia is proposing to carmakers a standardized, modular board design, like a PC platform. With the average concept-to-production cycle for a car as long as four years, the implication of a standardized platform is no small matter.
As the drumbeat for more apps, maps, and connectivity in cars gets louder, the pressure on carmakers to compete with personal electronics devices is mounting.
But here's the thing: Carmakers are facing far greater challenges than those consumer electronics companies have encountered. Certainly, a CE device with a poor user interface can drive customers away. But ill-defined HMI in cars could distract drivers, cause accidents, and put people's lives at risk.
On one hand, carmakers hope to respond to consumers' insatiable appetite for more apps and connectivity inside cars, so that electronics inside their cars stay current. On the other hand, automakers must be fully cognizant of guidelines recently issued by the US National Highway Traffic Administration.
The agency's guidelines recommend limiting the amount of time drivers have to take their eyes off the road to perform any task to two seconds at a time and a total of 12 seconds. The agency wants automakers to make it impossible for drivers to use some electronic functions, like text messaging, Internet browsing, and video-based entertainment or communications, unless the vehicle is stopped and is locked in park.
The recommendation is not a mandate. But limiting visual and mental distractions inside a car poses a tough balancing act for carmakers compelled to compete on the sex appeal of their dashboards.
Voice recognition, fewer buttons, and touch screens are trending upward today. But questions remain. How many knobs should stay? How many buttons are appropriate? Multiple screens or just one?
The following slideshow illustrates a variety of attempts (for past, present, and future cars) designers have made with automotive HMI.
BMW is credited with offering the leading user interface (iDrive), according to "The Automotive HMI Report 2013" published by Telematics Update earlier this year.
The height and width of the control display are neither too great (like that of Tesla's) nor too small.
The display looks simple and clean. As BMW points out, "the menu navigation follows the standard method used in computing and can thus be used intuitively."
Meanwhile, iDrive's controller offers a rotate-and-press mechanism that enables intuitive, one-handed operation. Right means "continue." Left means "back." Turning the button allows the user to scroll through a list; pressing it selects an option.
Touch comes to a car
Audi's MMI Touch, consisting of a touchpad and a rotary pushbutton, offers a new user interface that works with handwriting recognition.
The driver writes letters or numbers he wishes to input for navigation or a phone call by fingertip on the pad. The system provides acoustic feedback after each character. Audi believes MMI touch will interest Asian customers, because it can process tens of thousands of characters.
In the Audi A8, the German carmaker offers an option for using the MMI control knobs, touch pad, or voice control.
It is a well told story that Ford cars dropped, back in 2011, from 5th to 23rd in JD Power's customer satisfaction survey, primarily due to a hard-to-use in-car digital UI.
An article on Huffington Post in 2011 reporting on Ford's software upgrades for its "glitch-prone MyFord Touch" read:
MyFord Touch, which debuted in 2010 on the Ford Edge, replaces traditional dashboard knobs and buttons with a touch screen. Drivers control climate, navigation, entertainment, phone calls and other functions using touch or voice commands...
Dealer phone lines and Internet chat rooms were soon buzzing with complaints. The system shut down without warning and took too long to reboot. It didn't understand voice commands and didn't always respond to owners' touch. Some owners found the information-packed screens overwhelming.
Dashboard dreamed by an industrial designer
Marc Newson, an acclaimed industrial designer, designed in 1998-1999 a concept car called the Ford 021C. The car was never sold; and it was widely criticized for looking like a toy. But see the dashboard of the 021C below. Sure, it looks retro, but it does look simple and elegant, doesn't it?
Gigantic 17-inch touchscreen
We probably can't discuss the future of a car without debating the pros and cons of the enormous vertical touchscreen Tesla installed in its Model S in place of a host of buttons, knobs, and small displays installed in the average car.
When I first stepped inside the Tesla Model S at the International Consumer Electronics Show floor earlier this year, I must confess I became increasingly uncomfortable. Where are my knobs and buttons? Am I supposed to join the chorus of my fellow journalists who are all fawning over this thing?
Even more alarming was that the Model S has a web browser. It doesn't even lock you out while driving. I almost felt like screaming, "Where is the regulation?"
Whether you like it or not, however, the Model S is a harbinger of the future. The car's user interface is no longer locked into physical controls. The huge display is ready for software updates, better apps, and more features. It's not hard to imagine that a software platform model will soon become the norm for cars.
To Tesla's defense, the company kept persistent, easy-to-reach pushes in some areas. Temperature controls and music volume, for example, are permanently docked in the same location at the bottom of the screen.
Apple designs car dashboard
Apple's ambition to make inroads into cars has been well known, as demonstrated by Apple's announcement on iOS in the car earlier this year at its own developers conference; and Apple CEO Tim Cook, in a recent earnings call, responded to an analyst's question on Apple's strategy in cars, by saying:
Having something in the automobile is very, very important, it's something that people want, and I think that Apple can do this in a unique way better than anyone else. So it's a key focus for us.
But what made this Apple-Car connection even more relevant was the fact that earlier in July, this year, Apple secured US Patent No. 8,482,535 for "Programmable tactile touch screen displays and man-machine interfaces for improved vehicle instrumentation and telematics."
It lays out the groundwork for a touchscreen display that allows users to easily and safely operate certain vehicle functions. By employing a screen "feel," or tactile feedback, drivers can more effectively change car settings like temperature control without having to look away from the road.
The patent filing also reveals that the in-car system would be equipped with sensors that allow the driver to, for example, increase the temperature using a hand gesture.
The filing describes the patent:
A revolutionary form of dashboard or instrument panel results which is stylistically attractive, lower in cost, customizable by the user, programmable in both the tactile and visual sense, and with the potential of enhancing interior safety and vehicle operation.
Source: US PTO