Reimagining In-Car UX

We are living in a time where User Interface/User Experience design is making a revival. Design and experience has never mattered more. Demand for User Experience as a career is increasing and devices continue evolving into something better. However, one arena is having a great deal of trouble pleasing users: automobiles. The current state of in-car UX can only be described as confusing. We have to ask ourselves, if there are more UI/UX designers than ever, how can in-car infotainment be only getting worse? How did automobiles get to this point and why is it where it is? Throughout this research, we’ll explore at the history of design that has led automobile UX to be where it is and what can be done to improve it.

In the days before computers and LCD screens were mainstream, cars had simplistic interiors; their center stack arranged by three areas: radio, climate, and auxiliary vehicle functions (hazard lights, traction control, etc). These three areas controlled only the functions pertaining to that area (for example, you wouldn’t adjust the temperature in the radio section). Digital screens were either non-existent or mediocre at best. The interfaces were simple and intuitive; all functions relied on hard buttons. After computers were introduced, small screens began to be incorporated for functions such as the odometer as well as for the radio screen. As computer technology progressed, so did the in car infotainment.

1996 Mercedes Benz E-Class
2002 BMW 7 Series

The pivoting moment came when in 2001 BMW introduced its new iDrive system, based on Microsoft’s Windows CE, which was released in 1996. Once Microsoft had released the technology, the automotive industry took about 5 years to catch up and develop this system. This system moved almost every vehicle function from the center console into a screen controlled by a rotary knob located between the driver and passenger. Soon after, every manufacturer was rushing to debut similar systems, such as Audi MMI and the Mercedes Benz COMAND. Once the iPhone debuted, this furthered the development of systems that replicated Apple’s home screen UI as well as the development of apps. Cadillac goes so far as to boast that its system is just like an iPad. Also the use of touchscreens became much more widespread as Apple made touchscreens incredibly mainstream. One drawback to all these systems is that as much as they follow the technological trends of computers, they are all awful to use.

Cadillac CUE

Car infotainment systems have become increasingly complex. More and more features are being added into vehicles these days simply because adding features on an extra tab on a screen doesn’t require extra physical space. However, just because this is possible, it doesn’t mean it should always be done. Systems are normally divided into applications, phone, radio, climate, navigation, and vehicle settings. Applications have become increasingly detached from automobiles, and these apps include Internet browsers, sports scores, movie ticket purchasing, and more. The phone panel downloads your contacts and your call history every time you start your car, but the interface to access these features is complex and time consuming. The radio has superfluous features such as 150 radio presets and choosing between 7 different media options (i.e. USB, AUX, SD, etc). The climate control panel is littered with 10 different ways to heat/cool/massage your seat. The navigation panels are often so frustrating to use that people simply don’t use them. In the era of multitouch and animations, you would assume that a touch screen in a modern $50,000-$500,000 car would allow you to pinch and zoom. It doesn’t. Finally, the vehicle settings can sometimes be so complex that it allows you to customize every driving dynamic, completely unnecessary. I believe that in the modern era, we have reached a point where automobile UX designers have simply lost their vision. They don’t see that light at the end of the tunnel anymore, and this is probably because they’re too busy finding how to adjust the fan speed.

Although it could be argued that the feature set is the only cause of concern, we can’t forget that the design of these systems is equally as dreadful, and I find it to be the an even greater prohibiting factor for users. The systems are still heavily based on skeuomorphism, since the “flat and modern” design theme hasn’t yet translated to automotive design. Furthermore, these systems are dangerously distracting. Though, in recent years, screens have migrated to the top of the dashboard, a step in the right direction.

Screen placement in the current range of SUVs

Examples of in-car user experiences are disappointing. Here is the system you get in a $200,000 Ferrari California. This example is particularly egregious since it’s the same system you get in a $25,000 Chrysler minivan. It’s shocking that such an important part of the experience of owning a vehicle can be so easily overlooked. If I paid $200,000 for my new Italian Ferrari, I sure wouldn’t want it to have the same infotainment system as a $25,000 American minivan (the hallmark of a rental car). Imagine if they shared the same tail lamps- this would have everyone up in arms. How does sharing the same infotainment system not elicit the same reaction?

Ferrari California
Chrysler Town & Country

The idea of an “in-car” experience is one that is fundamentally different from one on your mobile device. More and more, vehicles are trying to resemble smartphones. Because new mobile devices have become so popular, user experience designers for cars have attempted to replicate this experience. You can swipe, scroll, and do many things you would normally do on an iPhone. However, these systems are slow to respond, making the iPhone suddenly feels 10 years ahead (in terms of technology). I’m sure everyone remembers the first time they held an iPhone. It was a magical moment, seeing the way the screen seemed to legitimately be controlled by your fingertips. The objects on the screen were so easily manipulated. It was this moment where you felt you were holding something special; there was this instant emotional connection. This same emotional connection exists when you first saw a Lamborghini driving down the street; it’s beauty taking your breath away. I believe that when you first sit in a new car, just as you fawn over the outside, the technological experience inside should be similarly extraordinary. We are no longer restrained by technology. If anything, we have so much technological capability being wasted away.

As bleak as the present is, the future holds some promise. Leaders in mobile technology and user experience have jumped in to fill the void: Apple, Google, and Research in Motion (otherwise known as Blackberry).

Apple recently introduced CarPlay, initially demoed (ironically) on a Ferrari California. CarPlay is the new software Apple has built into iOS 7. When users plug their device into the car they see a car-optimized version of iOS takeover their existing infotainment system. Essentially, your screen went from being Ferrari’s infotainment system, to an iOS in the car. Apple’s solution is promising since it not only it builds upon the software that everyone knows and loves, but also lends Apple’s UX expertise to the space. Although more promising, I don’t find this system to be effective because it doesn’t fix any of the issues at hand. The touchscreen will remain unresponsive, the graphics still don’t look as good as they do on an iPhone, and the system continues to be immensely distracting. Also, instead of having one great system you have two half baked ones because the manufacturer will be less willing to innovate. If you don’t have an iPhone, you have to go back to lackluster system that Apple intends to replace. I appreciate the work that went into this, but I don’t think this is the right solution; this is merely a coat of paint to a broken idea. What’s needed is a ground up solution.

Apple CarPlay with two home buttons

Google unveiled its Open Automotive Alliance platform. Similar to other Google projects, this is an open source program that entices developers to jump on board. Apparently, Google will be taking a two-pronged approach, there will be Android-powered cars, but there will also be enhancements to Android smartphones geared and making them more car-friendly. Few carmakers have jumped on board of Google’s project, most likely because it is too early. I also think Google will run into the same problem Apple has, attempting to fix a broken system.

Research in Motion is the final tech company to try to fix the in car experience. The company has actually created an entire subdivision dedicated to only in car technology, named QNX. Unlike both Apple and Google, they seek to make in car technologies better by building a new system from the group up and incorporating it directly into the car, not requiring you have a Blackberry device for their system to work. Their system has been used in various applications but has not been widely adopted yet. Of all three major companies, I think they most promising product. It’s great in that it doesn’t depend on having an iPhone. Furthermore, the responsiveness of the touchscreen is fantastic. QNX also incorporates Nuance voice recognition system, which is one of the best, and it has lightening fast processing capability. Design-wise it is equally as impressive. It incorporates the basic necessities without the luggage of those superfluous apps. However, I once again believe this solution doesn’t fundamentally rethink our approach to the in car experience.

QNX System

Time to start over.

Infiniti Q50 with three different displays

In reimagining the in car experience, I took a three pronged approach:

1) The first way I think we can improve the in car experience is to consolidate the number of screens found in vehicles. The greatest example of this is in the 2015 Infiniti Q50, which has 3 different screens, two on the center console and one in the instrument cluster. This redundancy is confusing to many people. I believe that the instrument cluster should be become one big TFT panel that handles the main functions and get rid of the screens on the center console. This may be a little jarring at first, but having the valuable information in the drivers line of sight will not only reduce distraction, but this will also make the placement of the screen much more intuitive. The interface that is there must be incredibly simplitics, having four tabs along the top: radio/maps/phone/vehicle. On each corner, you put the speedometer and tachometer so they are always in view. I would keep the climate controls on the center stack since those should not be lumped into this system.

2) The second focus should be the use of Heads-Up Display. Just as rear view cameras have become mandatory, I think HUD should be mandatory as well. Projecting essential information (i.e. speed, speed limit, navigation directions, incoming notification display) is not only beneficial to the driver but also decreases the need for drivers to take their eyes off the road. These systems are in use in sports cars already because of their effectiveness and should be implemented in mainstream vehicles.

3) The third focus should be voice recognition. In the era of Siri and Google Now, I think accurate voice recognition software isn’t hard to implement. Current voice recognition systems are either slow, inaccurate or require you to memorize ridiculous commands. What QNX has done with their system should be a model for the industry. In a demo video, one man says, “play the Beatles” and within seconds a Beatles song is playing. I should be able to give more complex commands such as “it’s cold in here”, and the system turns up the heat. Seamless, intuitive, and natural, the way in car voice control should be.

Combining these three ideas into a vehicle is exactly how I think the in-car user experience should be. The 2015 Audi TT takes a step in the right direction. The center console is devoid of a screen and very progressive. The air vents house a Nest-like climate interface with three different vents: one temperature, one fan speed, and one air direction. Simple, intuitive and elegant. Other necessary vehicle functions remain on the center console, such as hazard lights, traction control, etc.

2015 Audi TT Vent Controls


Here is what the new experience would look like:

I created a mock-up of what I believe the instrument cluster should be. For comparison, I included what a gauge cluster looks like today on a 2015 Cadillac CTS. While not unattractive, it’s busy and necessary information isn’t seen immediately. For my redesign, I stripped away all the unnecessary information. The instrument cluster has just four tabs in the center: radio, maps, phone, and vehicle. The bottom center houses a notification center which will display warnings or the current music playing. These remove all functions from the center console and instead bring them directly in your line of vision. The bottom center houses a notification center which will display warnings or the current music playing. I don’t understand why digital gauge clusters still use digital versions of dials- it’s a skeuomorphic design that we can do away with. I made the speedometer and rev counter large circles with digital read-outs. The speedometer changes colors depending on speed. When driving below or close to the speed limit, the circle glows green. At, or slightly above, the limit, it glows orange. Way above the limit, it glows red, to quickly signal to drivers that they are exceeding the speed limit.

Current Instrument Display




Here is a working prototype of the call screen:


There are, on average, fifteen million vehicles sold every year. That is fifteen million vehicles with frustrating in car experiences. This industry is begging for improvement, and I believe that consolidating screens, adding HUD and incorporating excellent voice recognition will go a long way towards making the daily livability of vehicles something people enjoy again. Just as software design and user experience has recently come into it’s own, I believe vehicle design will do the same in the near future. Creating a futuristic “wow-factor”, along with a brilliant and intuitive in car experience, will reinvigorate the next generation of vehicle interiors.