Look ma, no hands!

A quick guide to Autonomous Drive and designing good in-car HMI

One of the most challenging things about designing for car HMIs is the assumption that it is just another extension of current day consumer electronics. So the question then arises is, are we still designing HMI for cars to be an extension of your mobile phone? Or are we designing intelligent systems that aid the user to drive cars autonomously?

The recent past has seen various European car manufacturers and automotive suppliers successfully developing and implementing advanced driver assistance systems. As the trend towards Autonomous Drive (AD) particularly high and full automation grows, it begins representing a promising application of the internet of things in the mobility sector.

So then are we simply designing extensions of mobile devices or well-integrated systems that can intelligently assist drivers on the road.

What are we designing for?

With features like adaptive cruise control and autonomous drive, designers now need to reimagine the in-car experience

Clusters traditionally would only indicate speed, fuel, engine heat, oil, distance etc., and a recent example proposed by a design studio in London has suggested a simplified version of just that. I can see some value to the design, it’s simplified, contextual and sort of easy to read. But I believe it doesn’t take into account a lot of functions that are an inevitable future of driving.

Recent redesigns of clusters and infotainment centres.

The cluster is primarily meant to give drivers feedback about their current activity in the car as well as some additional car specific information that could affect their driving experience and with autonomous driving states those activities are no longer standard and obvious.

An extreme case in point could be if we think about the driving speed, is it a primary piece of information for the driver or does ‘time taken to destination’ take precedence in such a setup? Or for that matter, functions like presets in the radio player, does it make sense for an HMI to entertain such redundancy.

Setting presets in radio are now redundant and should be replaced by functions like favourites

Contextually aware

How can drivers be more aware but let disturbed?

While designing a complete experience, the use of various techniques such as lights, sounds, haptic and other feedback mechanisms need to be employed judiciously to ensure that the driver is always aware of his/her surroundings even if the car is doing partially or everything for them. This extension to the experience improves driver response and reaction time in case of emergencies.

While in autonomous mode, it is also important to look at how one can steer the driver back to controlling the car seamlessly. New innovations in touch sensitive steering wheels offer new ways with which the driver can interact with the car, changing the way we’ve traditionally looked at interaction with the car system.

The Neonode touch steering has been exploring interactions with regards to Autonomous Drive

The Design Medium

Designing HMI is more than just making it look good on presentations

Are we designing on the desktop for screens being viewed within a car? That is a question we must always keep in mind as we begin working. Clusters and infotainment systems need to be crafted on actual hardware being used within the car. The importance of doing this cannot be stressed more. Retina displays with high colour saturation gives us designers a false sense of colours and contrast, most of which completely fail when actually implemented.

Often white, superimposed on pastel coloured backgrounds looks nice, but is not the most readable even in the best of conditions. Additional, factors like sunlight, glare and reflections only augment the readability issue, increasing cognitive load especially when driving through bright and shadowy areas such as tunnels.

Designing on actual displays gives us a more accurate picture

Various points of interactions

Interactions that go beyond just a touch screen

Multiple input factors need to be taken into account such as steering buttons, dials, buttons and sensors apart from the obvious touch sensitive displays. Navigation within the HMI, needs to be simplified to work with multiple control devices.

Sensors play a big part within automated cars, and information displayed needs to be showcased contextually in order to increase relevance and reduce distractions.

Reimagining connected systems

We have been working on new ways to make the interactions within the car more seamless and intuitive. One such challenge was to try and make it easier for drivers to be able to interact with the infotainment or navigation system easily and more intuitively. This exercise helped us imagine new ways with which drivers were able to communicate with the infotainment centres within the car.

An example of micro ecosystems where a localised WiFi can act as a bridge to communicate with the car.

For example, by building localised networks within the car ecosystem, we have been able to get car networks to talk with external systems making it easier to push information to and from the infotainment centre. This leaves us with a strong modular framework that allows us to build and test interactions in a matter of weeks. Once interactions are defined and tested we then begin working on the aesthetics that include design, animation and visual feedback.


Clusters and infotainment systems are just a fraction of the complete driving experience, and a mere restructure of usability upped with better graphics could be a premature delivery of a redesign of an in-car HMI. One must look at a wholesome in-car experience in order to augment the personalisation one experiences within the car.

The way forward when designing in-car HMI must include features and services that we will see in cars two years from now. We believe in ideas that don’t just tackle isolated challenges but more comprehensive interaction challenges one would face both from a design perspective but as a psychological one. Advancements in consumer electronics can be considered effective catalysts that push the car industry to think of new and better things, but at the same time, the behaviour people exhibit behind owning cars and owning consumer electronics is very different and changes from region to region.

As designers and innovators we should work towards designing standardised interactions but also push for wildly unique designs for each car that we design.