5 Car UX Trends

Your current car’s UX is an afterthought. But there’s hope: these 5 trends will shape the future of car UX.


Face it, your car’s User Experience (UX) is an afterthought. Whether you’re driving a €200.000 Ferrari or a classic family car, the in-car UX will be equally bad. Manufacturers spend their marketing budgets on aligning the models with the brand. They all tell tales of empowerment but the actual in-car UX feels quite the opposite nowadays. Geoff Teehan already wrote about in-car UX failures in his witty State of In-car UX. But there’s hope! In this article I highlight 5 of the big trends that push the car UX forward.

  1. UX as USP — Forget horsepower, everybody takes a hint from Apple.
  2. Computer-assisted safety — A network of sensors will make us drive safer and adapt our car UX automatically.
  3. Mobile-first — Your car is just a second screen, mobile comes first.
  4. Big data — Cars will use embedded technology to help us understand them better, to perform better and to predict what’s coming.
  5. Fluid car ownership — New technologies allow car owners to share their car and earn money.

But first, where have we gone wrong?

Why can’t we have the latest and greatest User Interface (UI) in our cars? The problem is the different product lifecycles. In-car UIs need to be automotive grade: they have to ‘work’ for at least 8 years, which is the average lifespan of a car nowadays. But, your brand-new iPhone? It probably won’t last more than 2 years.

Pace layering

It all comes down to different paces, as Russel Davies explains.
The different parts that make up a car move at a different pace.
UI design is fashion and it moves very fast along a squiggly line. Developing a new car requires decades of R&D.

The first iPhone

The average lifespan of our mobile hardware might be 2 years but the software won’t even last that long. UI design becomes outdated very quickly. The first iPhone was released 8 years ago but its UI looks like an eye-soar. It’s impossible to have a UI stay beautiful throughout the years.


1. UX as a USP

Forget horsepower, everybody takes a hint from Apple and design becomes one of the main selling points.

The first big trend is fighting the status quo of bad car interfaces. New companies like Tesla try to distinguish through innovative UX. But also incumbents are putting effort into creating an in-car UX like no other. They even market it as one of the car’s USPs, with Tesla being the prime example here.

Tesla S interior (courtesy of Tesla)
“It’s the car and the software working harmoniously together to create a unique experience that can be felt even before you sit down in the car. HMI should be empowering, not typical.”
Brennan Boblett, User Interface Manager at Tesla in UX Magazine
Tesla S car UI with a central 17" touch display
“I think the reason we are different is that Tesla truly believed in the idea that the user experience should really be the centerpiece of the interior.”
Brennan Boblett in UX Magazine
Volvo Concept You — Pads (2011)

None of Tesla’s UI is that new though. If we look at the 2011 Volvo concept car, we see much of the same interface.


2. Computer-assisted safety

A network of sensors will make us drive safer and adapt our car UX automatically. The UI will be less obtrusive less (visual) attention-seeking.

No human is flawless and drivers are no exception. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year. With road crashes being the leading cause of death among young people ages 15–29, safety is a big deal. All manufacturers are investing heavily in computer-assisted safety systems that help us stay safer on the road.

Speed kills and it’s a difficult problem to tackle as car manufacturers often market the top speed and overall performance of their cars. Toyota created an app to make drivers more aware of speeding and annoy them until they slow down. Cars already beep when you’re not wearing your seatbelt, they might soon downtempo your music when you’re speeding.

The main trend here is equipping cars with an abundance of sensors that monitor all aspects of the car itself car and its driver. Cars will detect when you’re not watching the road (and know when that’s a problem and when not). An eye-tracking device called Fovio helps you stay in focus when needed most.

At the same time car UIs will require less eye contact. Different modes of interaction include gesture control, nifty multitouch interfaces or removing the UI.

Gestures

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqyCGTzTKio

BMW provides a set of gestures to perform key tasks such as adjusting the volume or accepting a phone call. These kind of innovative UIs will phase out as the awkwardness and inconvenience are higher compared to current solutions like accepting a call on the steering wheel or by voice commands.

Did you just wave at your neighbor or accepted that call from your boss?

Multitouch

Courtesy of Matthaeus Krenn

Luckily there will be other interactions that need less eye contact using multitouch interfaces like the one in the Tesla S.

Apple designer Matthaeus Krenn created a proof of concept of such an interface: depending on the number of fingers you use you can control all the settings of your car quickly. The UI adapts to the kind of setting: changing volume is a different scale than changing audio source.

A similar app based on the same principles (though a lot less attractive) is available for Android. Apps like Drivemode minimize the interaction complexity and try to dynamically adapt the UI to the context.

No UI

The ultimate being Google’s self-driving car that seems to have no UI whatsoever apart from window and HVAC control. Our cars will be self-learning systems that analyse and predict the driver’s behavior. Just like the Nest thermostat. All the settings will adapt automatically to your presence.


3. Mobile-first

Your car is just a second screen, mobile comes first. Connect your mobile device for control.

The two big mobile players (Apple with iOS and Google with Android) are fighting for the dashboard and want to become your car’s UI. They have a strong voice as any current smartphone is many times more powerful than the average car interface. More importantly, our phones contain our lives. Your upcoming meeting’s address? The audiobook you just downloaded? All there, right in your pocket.

We use Google Maps to navigate us anywhere and expect the same quality from our car’s GPS, yet the typical in-car or after-market system can’t compete so the smartphone experience enters our cars and takes over.

Apple and Google both have their solutions ready and manufacturers are starting to implement it in their lineup. With CarPlay you basically use the bigger screen in your car, as the intelligence is in your phone (like your Apple Watch). Other big players like Samsung are making moves with the likes of BMW, mostly focusing on the Internet Of Things aspect to it.

The influence of mobile devices on cars will continue with mobile operating systems being at the front and center. Big manufacturers will have their own Android-based OS that runs the car UI.

Volkswagen’s 2016 lineup with support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay
Land Rover Remote Control Range Rover Sport

But there’s more than just connecting. The next step is taking control. Land Rover is releasing a remote-control app that let’s you drive your car with your phone. People already use Siri to start their Tesla, this will be extended to ask your car to pick you up at the restaurant around the corner. Bad news for valets.

Taking control also means controlling the driving experience from your mobile device. The ROUSH exhaust let’s you choose the sound profile of your new Mustang and tune it to your personal liking through an iPhone app.

The ROUSH exhaust let’s you tune the sound of your exhaust with an iPhone app.

Even though software is eating everything, some car companies still try to work their magic with dedicated hardware. BMW’s ‘Display Key’ from the upcoming 7 series features a tiny touchscreen that allows you to navigate in- or out of parking spaces with. The interaction is clunky and the UI badly designed but the idea is here to stay: no more squeezing to get into your car when someone parked to close. However, this kind of hardware is doomed to disappear with software counterparts taking over.

BMW DisplayKey

As the software lifecycle is very short, manufacturers will have to either keep up or drown in the sea of more advanced mobile devices. Newer manufacturers like Tesla have built-in data connections for free over-the-air updates. It keeps the ‘new car feeling’ going for a little longer and prevents users from using their own devices instead. If they fail, the car will be little more than a second screen. Bad news for car shops overcharging customers to update their in-car GPS systems.


4. Big data

Cars will use embedded technology to help us understand them better, to perform better and to predict what’s coming.

Yes, data is eating the world and the automotive industry is no exception. Cars are data powerhouses. The more sensors they equip, the more they can tell about themselves and their environment. With high gas prices for example, insights in fuel economy can save you a lot of money. At the same time your car could predict car failure and help you save on fixing costs.

The self-driving car from Google generates almost 1 Gigabyte per second. That’s enormous: with your laptop harddrive you wouldn’t make it around the corner. Manufacturers and hobbyists alike are looking for ways to mine these data and turn them into useful insights. Ford opened shop in Silicon Valley to explore the possibilities and feel the pulse of the tech industry. At the same time Toyota invests a billion dollars in a research company in the Valley, employing over 200 researchers.

“Part of the [Ford] lab’s mission will be to look at how technologies like big data can leverage technologies embedded in cars to make better business decisions, from marketing campaigns to vehicle safety features.” — WSJ
“Toyota said its interest extended beyond autonomous driving, which is starting to be offered by some automakers and being promised by almost all of them. The technology was pointing to a new industry for everyday use, delivering a safer lifestyle overall, it said.” — The Guardian
What a Google car ‘sees’ src

All this data can be used in two ways: machine learning and data mining. Machine learning can help cars better predict based on the properties in the data that are known to be important. Data mining on the other hand will allow car manufacturers discover previously unknown insights in the data.

Startups like Drivebot, Vinli and miaLink want to bring these data insights to the masses by supporting older cars as well. A smart plug needs to be attached to your car’s data port under the dashboard and you’re good to go. It’s a typical example of ‘put a chip in it’ but it’s a simple and easy way to connect a rather dumb and sandboxed object with other platforms.

Drivebot app and installing the Drivebot dongle (courtesy of Drivebot).

It’s a matter of time before big manufacturers start selling these after-market add-ons to upgrade their older cars. Bringing a connected experience to their older models or maybe even models from another brand, so they get insights from their competitors. These kind of product-service systems (PSS) could be a welcome new revenue stream for manufacturers that struggle bridging the time between car purchases.


5. Fluid car ownership

New technologies allow car owners to share their car and earn money. Car ownership becomes fluid.

Sharing was caring, now it’s mostly earning. People get more and more used to the idea of sharing their (most personal) belongings, including their house and their car in return for some extra cash. The cost of ownership is high while at the same most of us are living in cities where owning a car is a big hassle and cars often stay in one place for days without use. ‘Airbnb for cars’ is on the rise.

Manufacturers will need to make changes to the car UX to support this change. I often use a car-sharing service called Cambio. You can reserve a car with their app and open it with a type of creditcard. Each car is used by several people a day and you can clearly see everyone’s traces. The in-car GPS has all the addresses of the previous drivers and where they were headed while the bluetooth carkit remembers all their phone numbers. Not so convenient: cars will need an ‘incognito mode’. I find post-its on the steering wheel with excuses about the empty gas tank the last driver left me. Cars will support this kind of messaging and logging across owners.

The rise of Cambio, BlaBlaCar, UberPOP/X and Lyft will continue with many more services to follow. But it doesn’t stop there. More grassroots P2P car sharing services will pop up that basically let you start your own car rental service. A PSS like Getaround allows you to turn any car into a rental by letting users reserve and unlock your car with their phone. Expect these services to connect to your calendar so you will have your car whenever you really need it.

Getaround app

You rate the driver and they rate your car while Getaround provides insurance for both. People don’t give their car keys to random strangers, so the social aspect here will be very important. But after a while, accepting a user will be one Tinder-swipe away!