The Future Interface of the Automobile

Over the past few years, the demand for User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) designers has significantly increased. According to an article from Brazen Life, UI Design is #1 out of 7 in-demand careers for design and planning, with job growth up to 30%. “Because design and planning play such an essential role in our lives, it’s no surprise employers are looking to hire in these innovative industries.” Although User Interface design is currently focused more toward digital platforms such as web and app design, we are beginning to see its intuitive introduction to the dashboard of the automobile. In this article I’ll be investigating the history of the User Interface of the automobile, how it got where it is today, and where I think it’s heading.

What exactly is UI?

User Interface design or UI for short is implemented to maximize the users experience and make the users interaction as simple and efficient as possible. An example of good UI facilitates the user with the ability to complete the task at hand without drawing unnecessary attention to itself. UI utilizes Graphic Design and Typography to support its usability, influencing how users perform certain interactions and improves the aesthetic appeal of the design. As Spike Jonze realized in the making of the film Her, the future isn’t about technology, it’s about people. UI helps to make technology more human and dissolve it into a connection with everyday life.

This is exactly how the UI of cars should work. Car UI should not be distracting or complicated to use, but rather simple with a rather intuitive form of user interaction.

How has car UI developed over the years? — The evolution of direct control.

Over time, dramatic change in user interface of cars has been evident. The original Ford Model T, for example, which began production in 1908. The UI model was one of ‘direct control’, where the driver had only one dedicated leaver and gauge, for each function. It was a simple and purposeful design that did not distract the driver from operating the car in a safe way. Of course, under the hood, it was not as technologically advanced as today’s cars, so obviously did not need as many dials, buttons and gauges. However, over the past 100 years we have become accustomed to accept that all the features of the car are presented at the same time. Is this really necessary though? The truth is; many dials, switches and gauges seem to advertise that the car can do more. This was the mentality of the 1930’s, a time in which airplanes were becoming more popular. Many luxury car companies were designing the UI of their cars inspired by these complex airplane cockpit UI designs. This was done not necessarily to increase the usability of the product, but rather boast the technology under the hood. Dashboard complexity was driven by style instead of function. In this sense, features became a definition of luxury. This was a time in which designers were imagining the future to be more about technology and less about people. This trend has seemed to continue over the years, and gradually we have lazily come to accept the common dashboard as it is today.

During the 1990’s car interiors were beginning to feel the burn from feature overload. The amount of buttons was becoming increasingly confusing. Just look at the Pontiac Grand Prix (5th Generation) for example: Four separate buttons for the lights, four more separate buttons for the wipers, and a steering wheel full of buttons for God-knows-what.

Pontiac Grand Prix (5th Generation) — Photo Credit: Pontiac

Or look at the Honda Civic (9th Generation), which bore a wealth of screens: A screen for your infotainment, and two screens for your information right in your line of sight. This is a classic example of sensory overload.

Honda Civic (9th Generation) — Photo Credit: Honda

This was only the 90’s, and car UI was becoming significantly overcrowded! With the introduction of further elements to car UI, such as: smartphone integration, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, autonomous driving and touchscreen displays. The combined effect of the tired car UI design trend could not keep up with digital technology and the legacy of direct control made for non-intuitive, clumsy design of the dashboard. Driving is a dangerous activity and all these new features are beginning to become increasingly distracting to the driver. Change is needed! With the increasing amount of features that the car has to offer, the trend of direct-control needs to be abandoned and alternative solutions need to be considered.

The Future of car UI — The move toward on-demand, personalized control.

We can see that a few manufacturers and technology companies are beginning to recognize this need that direct control UI needs to be abandoned, and on-demand UI needs to be embraced. Matt Krenn’s clever touchscreen UI shows a classic example of this, in which the touchscreen isn’t plotted out into arbitrary menus and buttons. You can touch it anywhere and the various controls depend on how you touch it. Dragging upwards with two fingers turns up the volume; dragging up with three changes the audio source, four fingers controls temperature and five for airflow. Each has a unique sensitivity based on its function and can be triggered starting anywhere on the touch surface. Moving up or down with your fingers spread a bit wider offers an additional set of controls. All eight of these can even be remapped to the driver’s preference. Although touch screens may not be new to car UI, this car UI touchscreen concept embraces the idea of on-demand UI and abandons the skeuomorphic direct control touchscreen. This makes for a good example of a simpler, more intuitive on-demand user interface without causing distraction.

A New Car UI: How touch screen controls in cars should work — Matthaeus Krenn

Another Example is Tesla’s central touch screen, which allows the user to place two different functions in different panels at the same time, however it’s UI design has already become outdated in comparison with mobile and web UI. And so, design studio, Oberhaeuser, has designed a concept that takes this to the next level.

Tesla Interface Concept — Bureau Obehaeuser

These concepts show a good example of concealing controls, but to take the idea of on-demand UI in cars even further, we could begin to look at system anticipation. This means that the car should suggests options for you when presented with a problem, just how mapping apps have become good at anticipating when the user needs to hear the next direction. This could also be seen in the context, for example, when you are low on petrol your car could notify you and direct you to the nearest petrol station. Or when entering a zone with active speed cameras the car could notify the user of the cameras and of their current travelling speed and the users speed relative to the speed limit. Another great example of on-demand control UI in cars may be seen with the personalization of the dashboard. The dashboards of today are rather universal in design. This causes problems in the reflection of different modes drivers adopt. For example, as Cobie Everdell explained in his article: Why The Car Industry Needs To Rethink The Dashboard User Interface Design, his “Monday morning is all about Zen”, so he would like to see a blank dashboard and “Saturdays more about performance”, so would then like to see his RPM’s. He suggests he would also like to see his cruise control option only activated when in places where cruise control might be appropriate.

Well designed UI is seen all around us these days, which has played a huge role in simplifying and creating more efficient lifestyles for most of us. I can conclude that the automotive industry seems to be on the same track, but it needs to completely abandon years of stagnant design principle of direct control and rather embrace the world of on-demand and personalized control, much like how we have managed to moved away from the era of mobile phones with physical buttons and into the world of the touch screen. Although the future may mainly consist of purely autonomous vehicles, the opportunities we do have to control our cars should be a simple, safe and enjoyable experience focused on the ‘now’, allowing us to zone into and appreciate the present moment.