Mercedes-Benz at the 2014 Geneva Auto Show — Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, presenting “CarPlay”. Mercedes-Benz will be the first German premium automotive manufacturer to bring Apple’s “CarPlay” infotainment system based on the iPhone into cars. © 2014 Daimler AG

Is CarPlay the Savior of In-Car UX?

While iOS CarPlay and Android Auto will make phone calls and music selection easier, they will also make all other user interfaces in the car look dated, complicated, and bad.

Here’s a brief analysis of the car industry’s User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) dilemma.


You may have read the article on The [sorry] State of In-Car UX by Geoff Teehan a while ago — a great summary of what current cars from various brands currently burden their drivers with. The article concludes that there is hope on the horizon of in-car UX with Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto — and this is an opinion that is shared by many UX professionals.

Active Info Display in the 2015 Volkswagen Passat.
© Volkswagen AG

Recently, we have seen more and more displays taking over current car model’s cockpits, like the decent digital instrument cluster of the upcoming VW Passat. We have also heard many manufacturers announce the adoption of CarPlay and Android Auto — only to delay availability over and over. (As of September 2014, not a single car with CarPlay/Android Auto support is on the market; the first ones are planned for 2015).

This gives us at at Raureif Automotive the impetus to think about and discuss whether beaming your cell phone’s UI to your car’s screen is the definite answer to a good user experience in the car. Will these happy technologies really liberate us from ugly automotive user interfaces without any tradeoffs?


Defining In-Car UX

For now, we will define “in-car UX” as everything that is related to on-screen interfaces (Graphical User Interfaces) in the car. The on-screen UX in the latest lineup of car models could be separated roughly into these three categories:

  1. Entertainment and communication: The UI for music, telephone, messaging, web, and third-party apps. These features are accessed mostly through the display in the center console and through second screens (such as the driver’s mobile phone).
  2. The dashboard UI for the tachometer, warnings, driving assistance, … essentially everything directly related to driving.
  3. Everything else, such as climate control, the car’s general settings, plus various feature settings (automotive room scent, anyone?).

Most contemporary cars feature two screens: a large one in the center console, and a smaller one behind the steering wheel. With the rise of head-up displays, a third screen will become more common and may even replace one of the other screens at some point.

Diagram: UX designed and fully controlled by the car manufacturer are on red, if designed by Apple or Google, it is on blue.
© 2014 Raureif GmbH

CarPlay and Android Auto Cover Only A Fraction Of The In-Car UX

As the diagram above shows, Google and Apple will (for now) only cover a fraction of a car’s UX, mostly limited to entertainment and communication, accessed via the screen in the center console.

Furthermore, driving features — with the exception of navigation — are still designed and defined by the car manufacturer.

Even if CarPlay and Android Auto provide a better way to interact with your phone’s content while you’re sitting in your car, they are not the answer to the in-car UX mess that car manufacturers have accumulated.

What Does this Mean for Car Manufacturers?

In most cases, iOS CarPlay and Android Auto are lipstick on a pig. A nice façade. A parasite. An afterthought. From a marketing-and-sales point of view, that might go well for some time. From an user-experience point of view, having the iOS UX right next to the car’s UX will make the car’s system look even worse. The pig will show. The user’s impression that there are two different quality levels will increase over time, as the software provided by Apple and Google will get updates at least annually, while car manufacturers will struggle to keep up with this pace. The divide will become even bigger over the car’s lifetime if car manufacturers don’t find a way to keep their native UIs fresh.

What Does this Mean for Consumers?

Well—it will surely become easier to connect your phone to your car. Listening to music and making phone calls will feel natural. And it will be a lot safer to use your phone on the road. There will be third-party apps taking advantage of the new context, coming up with stuff you couldn’t do before while driving a car. But operating your car’s driving features will have nothing to do with iOS or Android, because your old car UI stays in charge.


Mercedes-Benz S-Klasse Coupé – interface example of the dashboard UI. © 2014 Daimler AG

What to Do?

Consumers will quickly find out that the phone operating system has no significant power over the car’s operating system. That may be obvious to industry experts, but car buyers may be misled into thinking that their new Chevy will run on iOS or Android.
Manufacturers may start adapting their entertainment and communication UIs to the paradigms of iOS and Android. But seamlessness will be hard to achieve.
When CarPlay and Android Auto have been adopted successfully, Apple and Google will quickly expand their brand footprint in the car by creating new use cases. Having strong brands like Apple take over one of your product’s key experiences — that’s probably the last thing Mercedes-Benz or Porsche would want for their own brands. But their current ignorance in UI design and the obvious problems of integrating hardware and software in recent years seems to force all car makers into unfavorable partnerships with Apple and Google.

With more and more screens in the car cockpit and with technologies like head-up displays becoming more common, the manufacturers’ need for UI design competence becomes imperative:

The In-Car UX Defines the Perception of A Car.

Car manufacturers must accept that on-screen interfaces and in-car UX define the product. The UX will be a core component of their brand and their business.
CarPlay and Android Auto support are surely must-have features of any contemporary car — but no more than that. These technologies are not a replacement for model-specific and brand-specific user interfaces.

Car Manufacturers Must Play Like Software Companies.

If manufacturers want to treat software interfaces as a key asset, they must behave like software development companies. Consequently manufacturers have to adopt the pace of the software industry. This should manifest in continuous updates, including complete GUI overhauls that go beyond bug fixes and map updates. iOS 7 made iOS 6 look old within a few weeks. That doesn’t mean iOS 12 can’t do that to iOS 11 farther down the road.

Design An Operating System, Not UIs for Single Dashboard Features.

But the most immanent implication for car manufacturers is to simply design better software interfaces. Of course, this is easier said than done.

To design better interfaces, software should be seen as a material with its own specific qualities, strengths, weaknesses, and development requirements. Manufacturers must accept that the in-car UX is a living thing that keeps changing and is subject to industry trends in software design and services even after the car is shipped.
So rather than designing a series of UIs for specific features, everything should be designed from scratch as one single operating system — an operating system with cross-feature consistency that is flexible enough to accommodate third-party apps and new features. It’s not about logos and colors, it is about finding e.g. the Mercedes way or the Porsche way of interacting with a car’s features.

Elevate The Importance of UI Design In The Car Design and Innovation Process.

To make sure that great in-car UX is at the core of new car models, UI design should be part of the early design process. For example, show cars and design studies should already include state-of-the-art UIs with actual feature ideas, not only glowing sci-fi-inspired 3D animations with futuristic fonts and Star Trek UI nonsense.


https://vimeo.com/61821553

Screens are crucial. Some cars already have a screen as the dominant element of the dashboard. Most notable examples are the touch screen of the Tesla Model S and the Virtual Cockpit of the Audi TT. While these are great hardware advancements, the actual software running on these screens is still neither appropriate for the brand, nor for the use case of driving safely.

To create better in-car user experiences, car manufacturers must go beyond hiring UX consultants and interface designers, and must stop putting lipstick and Star Trek façades on their brands. They will have to adapt their innovation processes and management structures to the needs of software design and development. It is a big challenge and it will take time — but we wouldn’t be surprised to see UI designers in the car industry’s top design positions soon.


Learn more about Raureif’s approach to automotive user experience at raureif-automotive.com.

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