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.