Making sense of automotive information systems

As more information flows through automotive information systems, the UIs have become ever more complex and confusing. Drivers must sacrifice more and more valuable time and attention to find menus, enter information, and manage the integration of “after-market” devices, e.g. cell phones and MP3 players. Let’s take a fresh look at the layout of the console, and see if there are opportunities to clear up this confusion.

Today_Tomorrow_000_sm.jpg Today: Notice that the console (3) isn’t optimized for either the primary driver vision axis (1), or the passenger (2).

In today’s cars, critical information — status, emergency signaling, speed, fuel, temperature, and RPM gauges — is located in the driver’s primary vision axis, behind the steering wheel. This minimizes the impact on the driver’s attention while driving. Current steering wheel controls often provide physical buttons to control various on-the-fly tasks — signaling, gear changing, cruise control, volume, back/next, take/drop a call — to ensure that the driver keeps his hands on the wheel.

The BMW 7 series HUD

In higher-end cars like the BMW 7 series, head-up displays (HUDs) are becoming standard. HUDs integrate simplified driving instructions, speed limits, and emergency information into the primary vision axis, reducing the need to look down even a couple of degrees. In fact, there’s even an app for this! It's called aSmart HUD.

In more and more cases, the center console offers a multitude of functionality, including the setup of various systems, navigation and entertainment controls. This console delivers a potpourri of content intended for both drivers and passengers, and it's placed directly in between driver and passenger, requiring both to move toward the middle in order to use it. From the driver's point of view, passenger operation of this console can feel like a friend grabbing the mouse from the driver’s hand and taking over. Not pleasant, and potentially the beginning of an argument.

Why not break up the center console platform and re-focus on the two different user types?

Today_Tomorrow_001_sm.jpg Tomorrow? Let's optimize the content for each user.

The driver-oriented UI

Move the driver-related content into the driver's primary vision axis behind the steering wheel, and provide access to supplementary content into the passenger area. There will be some overlap, of course: Radio and climate controls should be accessible by both. But wouldn't it be nice to have two UIs tailored to the very different usage situations, rather than one general purpose UI?

Obviously, complex functionality and setup routines should be disabled while the car is moving, but the basics would live within the sphere of the driver. This would begin to make the driving experience more targeted, more functional, and hopefully safer. A platform with an enlarged display such as Ford’s Fusion SmartGauge 3 could supply this added functionality.

For enhanced controls while the car is stopped, the steering wheel could provide tactile “navigate & act” controls, such as multi-touch track pads or even a touchscreen. This would also avoid additional controllers such as Audi’s MMI, BMW’s iDrive or Lexus’s latest Remote Touch.

The passenger-oriented UI

As we’ve already seen with many current cars, passengers already have individual screens available, though these are mostly in the rear seats. Why not place all non-driving specific controls explicitly in the hands of a passenger? This could be a solely touch screen system because the passenger isn’t driving and therefore can focus 100% on input and navigation of the system. You could even take it one step further, and allow the passenger to modify the driver’s view with supplementary information — GPS directions, weather, and so on. This would support and enhance the driver/navigator dynamic, and get away from the current situation, which all too often leads to confusion and conflict.

What do you think?


Nick Myers
Nice article and I would love one of those HUDs. Remarkably crisp. I'd vote for having the radio controls on the driver's side only. That'll reduce a lot of potential accidents (and arguments :-) ). Of course, it goes without saying that cars are more like computers every day. I had to take mine in just the other day to be rebooted. Just hoping it never crashes.
Christian Baptiste
I like the idea of the split hud's. It makes sense to be able to let the passenger assist the driver then pass over the controls to the driver. i.e. the passenger looks up an address, once found then he/she passes the navigation over to the driver. My Droid has the built in GPS and the Google Maps applications. The "navigate to" voice activation is awesome (when it works) and much better than something that I have to manually set while driving. This is all too apparent when it doesn't recognize my input though and I have to set it manual (dangerous). So voice activation IMO is an essential asset to any HUD. I like the idea of projecting onto the window so that I wouldn't have to look at the dashboard or a device on the dashboard. This would be really nice when using a GPS for directions if it arrows were actually pointing to turnoffs, or indicating when to move to a new lane, etc. A little side track if I may, going back to the Droid for a second. One thing that is frustrating is that there are 10 great map apps but I have toggle between them, viewing one at a time. I much rather have the ability to have one map app with on/off filter layers from the other apps. That way I can navigate, see speed traps (Trapster) and find fast food or gas locations without having to switch apps, rather I can just turn on the view like a over lay (layer). Food for thought of the HUD software.
Yes, the HUD's have a lot of potential even for entertainment/info purposes. Imagine HUD's for the rear side passenger windows supplying augmented reality content or even games. Would be great for keeping the kids busy...
I like the idea of letting the passenger set up elements in the driver's display. But what about the situation when there is no passenger in the car, and the driver is in a high-traffic area, but needs to adjust a few controls? Would it not be nice to be able to share the screen with somebody at the end of an internet connection, and let that person assist?
It might be a good idea not to fix the position of the touch screen within the center console - and not in front of the passenger either. If it was able to slide towards the passenger side, it would certainly improve matters. Drivers could *choose* to give up control but would not be *forced*. Two reasons why I don't like the original idea: 1) There *are* situations where I'd like to change some obscure settings while driving because it is both save and comfortable given the situation. 2) I wouldn't add any more functions to the area around the steering wheel to facilitate my needs. To (over-) load any user interface with functions isn't good design - remember the first gen iDrive?
@ Stephan: Good points! I like your idea of a flexible/sliding touch screen module, that would certainly reduce the BOM (instead of having two touch displays) and still ensure drivers access when driving alone, for example while standing at a red light or so. Then while driving content access could be limited for safety reasons.

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