Car buyers who select vehicles with an abundant array of features and functions have a simple request for automakers. They want a human-machine interface that lets them bring in personal devices and perform all kinds of tasks whenever they want, and they don’t want to have to read a manual or spend time learning how to manage their many options.
Panelists grappled with solutions to this vexing challenge during a 2015 SAE World Congress panel: “In-Car Experience - What does the Consumer Really Want?” One of the key requirements will be user interface that adapts to drivers personal preferences, and possibly even to change in response to various driving environments.
“The HMI has to be intelligent,” said Charan Lota, General Manager, Electronics Systems at Toyota Technical Center USA. “If you’re in a busy downtown area with a lot of pedestrians, the display should be dumbed down so it’s less distracting. If a teen is driving and there are several people in the car, it should turn down the volume.”
Simplicity is another critical trait for controls that are used extremely often. Many expect to do most of the tasks they do in homes and offices without distractions that could cause accidents. Often, they aren’t thrilled with current offerings.
“Now, there’s so much diversity and systems are so complex, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction,” said David Taylor of Panasonic Automotive Systems of America. “Developers need to make sure commonly used features are readily available. Audio and navigation are the two biggest things; 84% of drivers still listen to terrestrial radio weekly, partially because it’s easy.”
The stakes are high because HMIs are widely seen as important product differentiators. Companies that have problems with user interfaces get plenty of negative publicity. Consumer-focused companies are trying to play a role in the rapidly evolving HMI field.
“If we don’t get it right, companies from outside the industry are smelling blood,” said Andrew Hart of SBD North America, a research firm. “Companies like Apple and Google are already trying to move in.”
Many of the techniques preferred by panelists leverage popular concepts from various consumer technologies. The ability to tailor user interfaces is an important factor for HMIs. Vehicle owners want to be able to pick personal favorites on the home page and arrange them in order of preference.
“Favorites are undervalued in vehicle HMIs,” said David Lyon of Pocketsquare Design, a design partner group. “It’s great to be able to make the functions you use most in a spot where they’re easy to access.”
The ability to further personalize icons with photos or colors will help drivers easily perform the tasks they do most often. Some drivers will want to see everything, while others want to see basic displays until they decide to access a less-used function.
“Customization is important,” Lota said. “You can have a hyper user mode and a common mode. Some people want all the information available, others don’t. The hyper user may not be a hyper user all the time. In a busy city environment, they may go to the basic display.”
Even hyper users may become fatigued by the number of available offerings. Many owners complain that cars already have so many options that it’s difficult to understand and use all of them. One panelist said that strategists and developers need to rein in the feature set.
“Vehicles today are overloaded with features,” Lyon said. “It’s difficult for someone designing a car for 2018; they don’t want to leave anything out. I think companies need to set a budget for features so they don’t get too many.”
Determining how to control these functions remains a challenge. Manual controls ranging from knobs and buttons, to touch input, to mouse-like console devices are effective. While these manual techniques are effective, they draw the driver’s eyes away from the road and pull a hand off the wheel.
Unfortunately, hands-free alternatives didn’t get enthusiastic support. Most panelists agreed that voice recognition needs to be improved. Users don’t like to learn commands for tasks, and many vehicle owners complain that systems too often don’t understand instructions.
“There are some technical problems, one is that we’re not yet working with natural speech,” Taylor said. “Right now voice is too often not an enjoyable solution, it’s easier to do things other ways.”
At this point, it doesn’t look like gesture recognition will be one of the alternatives to voice control. Panelists described far more problems than benefits for hand motions.
“Every supplier has brought us a gesture control system; not one has worked all the time,” Lota said. “There are a lot of different techniques that are not easy to understand. Another fundamental issue is that you have to take your hand off the wheel.”