Do not touch or die trying

Why touch-only in cars is bad UX - The Tesla Case

Michael Ehrnboeck
May 9, 2019 · 4 min read

esla’s way up in the e-car industry is outstanding. In the glimpse of an eye they made it to challenge, rile and compete against the biggest, (yet) most successful but too old-fashioned car companies in the world.

Nevertheless Tesla is quite half-baked in manufacturing cars which already caused some trouble. From bigger problems in the manufacturing process to some smaller issues the car itself has, they made a bunch of rookie-mistakes. I will not judge them too, they already get enough bad press.

For what I will judge them as a UX-Designer is the gigantic touch-only display they integrated in their cockpit. Whereupon “integrated” sounds much nicer than it actually looks. You rather have the feeling that they forgot to built-in a display at all and then just placed one after already finishing the car. But that is only a matter of taste. Back to judging: Touchscreens are great - but not when driving a car at 120mph on a highway. The problem with touching while driving is that you, as a driver, get no sufficient feedback if you successfully hit the touchpoint you were actually touching for. A small vibration does not necessarily mean that you hit the right one.

Touchscreens are great — but not when driving a car at 120mph on a highway.

If you want to make sure you did, you have to verify by staring at the display. That seconds of staring implicate that you lose concentration and focus of the traffic what can end up in an accident or even a deadly crash. Alternatively you could stop the car for touching but no car driver in the world will stop for handling minor actions like changing volume, switching radio station or cooling down the temperature. Hence the motto is: Do not touch or die trying.

Audis futuristic “Just Screens” Cockpit-Vision

Not only Tesla trends to touch-only solutions in their cars. Just recently German car producer Audi came up with their new concept for the Audi e-tron cockpit and guess what: Touch is all around! The article says “…it’s properly futuristic…”. By writing that and as the car shape looks exactly like the current e-tron, they apparently mean that the car is futuristic because of some touch screens. If touch-everywhere is the only thing that represents the future, I am out.

Problems with touch-only solutions:

  • It is hard to find an action without looking, as you cannot feel it
  • No haptic feedback possible if touched button was the intended one
  • Two gestures needed: You first have to enable an action on the display before you are able to change it e.g. volume, seat heating

So how does an awesome cockpit-solution then look like?

There is a great example out there that shows how a, from UX-View, great cockpit-concept should look like: The BMW i8 cockpit with the iDrive controller and individual buttons for every action.

Why do I like the iDrive system?

BMW clearly separates between major actions, minor ones and when to make them:

  • Major actions: Like setting up the navigation or rerouting, are not meant to be done while driving as they are time-consuming. You have a controller for the interaction with the display.
  • Minor actions: Like changing volume, switching radio station or turning off seat heating can quickly be done while driving without big effort and looking. You have individual buttons for every action and haptic feedback.

Fun fact: The iDrive controller concept from BMW is not nearly new. They use that system for many years. And guess what? Almost every other big car manufacturer also has a controller-system, so does Audi, called Audi MMI. The huge difference now is that they obviously decided to abolish their MMI and go, like Tesla already does, touch-only in the future.

Conclusion:

The controller-system with individual buttons is the way to go in car-cockpits. Focus on the traffic is key and a few seconds of being distracted can have serious consequences. Being distracted for 5 seconds at 55 mph is like driving the length of an entire football field blindfolded.

Side note: What about voice?

Long story short: Voice is nice and with saying that I actually mean “nice to have”. But it cannot replace a proper and well-designed controller system.
Driver: Hey BMW, please turn down the sound a bit.
BMW Voice: Sorry, what do you mean with a bit?
Driver: Ahh, shut up. Where is the volume button on that display?

Take-Aways:

  • Just because there is a new technology available it does not necessarily mean that you should replace the current, working, one
  • Controller-Systems with individual buttons are the way to go in car cockpits
  • Voice integration is, as in most use cases, a nice gadget and can provide additional convenience but is not a standalone alternative

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