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: 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?

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?

Michael Voege

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