The cars we loved.
Continued from Screen Dreams: Auto Infotainment Systems Part 1
The Price of Being First With so many operating systems under pinning the many options available today, the question of whether any car company will stick with one or the other becomes a legitimate concern. Microsoft may be the largest player with its systems underpinning Ford’s SYNC program and others. Already, Ford is moving to another system with improved functionality. Those Ford and Lincoln buyers who bought in to the last system used over the past few years can expect updates and support from Ford for 10 to 12 years. This is a scenario is paying out with other manufacturers too as systems running QNX, Android, iOS and others compete for carmaker’s attention with little standardization beyond Bluetooth and USB as a result. The propriety systems deployed by Cadillac, Honda and others may well give way to ones supported by Microsoft or Apple. After all, car makers have little experience with screen based user interaction and should probably cede its development to the companies who make their livelihood doing such.
Knobs Fight Back? I think there will eventually be a retreat from the carmakers who will realize that people overwhelming prefer knobs and buttons (at least older drivers not born with mommy’s old smartphone in hand). Some car makers have already seen the light near the end of the interface tunnel and are starting to offer hybrid systems. Ford never completely abandoned buttons, but learned through its experience with negative customer feedback, that buttons are best for some functions. Aside from buttons vs screen debate, the basic user interaction model is still being developed. Some are further ahead than others. Honda a leader in traditional dash design, has lagged behind wile Mazda offers an elegant solution that rivals those offered by Mercedes and Audi for the money. The best systems combine tactile controls with screens. Despite the theoretical head start by more than a decade, the Japanese seem to lag behind the Europeans when it comes to advancements in infotainment ergonomics. With a few exceptions, the advancements in ergonomics the Japanese were known for during the ’80 and ‘90s has not translated to cutting edge applications for screen based systems across the board.
Best In the Business? BMW, Audi for instance offer a knob that acts as a mouse for screen navigation. The Europeans usually price at a much higher price point so some elegance is expected, but companies like Mazda are offering systems for less with the same functionality. Still, the most elegant solutions are those that allow the screen to retract or hide in the dash from Mercedes, Audi and BMW. This is the wave of the future, a screen that appears when you need it and voice activated functions in lue of having to touch screens. In other words, it takes a powerful system to give the illusion of simplicity, be it the interface or the mechatronics behind how the system conceals itself when not being called upon. Perhaps some functions of the screens themselves will integrate into the windshields as HID displays. During the ’80s some companies such as Pontiac offered the feature as early as 1984. Today, it’s used in a few Cadillac’s and Mazda’s, but only dispenses basic information (Mazda). The notion of advance navigation systems is not entirely new. In 1981, Toyota installed a system in a Celica and a few years later a German system called HOMER promised James Bond like functionality. Carmakers have learned a lot since then, but mostly in the last five or so years.
Until the day when a car’s navitament system becomes as easy to replace or update as updating a browser or phone app, I will view this trend with cautious optimism. If the music and film industry can get you to buy media you own multiple times, there’s no reason car makers won’t give it a try with continuous updates of their navitainment systems at a price. After all most people will keep a car longer than a tablet or phone. Once basic ergonomic and hardware factors are standardized and mastered, such a system updates could be possible. The current Ford Fusion is a great example of getting the basic ergonomics right for now and possibly improvements to the actual system later. In the meantime I continue to be amazed and frustrated in equal parts by my car’s voice activation system. It’s the same as the one in the Fusion, except it looks more like robot loving kids designed its enclosure. Ford got a lot of bad press with early versions of SYNC, but the reality was that most users never took the time to acquaint themselves with it (i.e. read the manual). That would be the case with just about any consumer electronic device where the customer ignored the manual (remember flickering clocks on VCRs?). To illustrate how jacked up the suppliers for touchscreen and voice activated devices are about standardization, Microsoft was behind the Ford system while building a related (but different) system for other car makers. Hearing that Ford’s replacement for MyFordTouch is already here is not surprising considering the hit Ford took from JD Powers due to the system’s perceived complexity. A new system that’s been dumbed down promises improved ease of use. The delima is similar for Cadillac, who’s CUE system has received bad press and complaints from consumers. Ironically while GM’s flagship brand struggles with interface design, it’s downmarket brand Chevrolet seems to be doing much better at a significantly lower price point.
It all goes to prove that car makers today have to know as much about interface design as traditional car factors like safety, performance, comfort and efficiency. Having said that I feel better about Mazda designing a user interface in my car than Apple building the car itself.