We all need transportation in the cities we live in and we want it to be safe. If you are not walking, cycling or using public transport, you are probably one of the millions of people in the world driving a vehicle to go from point A to point B. Well, you are in for a treat as it has never been easier and safer, at least according to the ads we see everyday. The cars are obviously much safer compared to their older versions for sure, there is no doubt about that. Extensive research and crash tests have helped making them safer for both passengers and pedestrians but as more features and technologies were added to the cars we drive, the more complex and distracting they have become to use.
To start with, let’s take a look at how the interior design of one of the best selling car models in the world, Volkswagen Golf (there are more than 30.000.000 out there), has changed over the years. The reason I chose Golf is that it has usually set the tone for how a family car should be. Most of the other manufacturers followed suit with the design, quality and features. One can argue that it is the definition of family hatchback in the automotive world.
The year is 1974 and there is nothing much going on inside the vehicle as there are not many features to fiddle with, you push a few buttons to control basic functions like the headlights and hazard warning lights but the layout is scattered around. For some reason, the headlights and the fog lights are at the opposite sides. The car heating and ventilation is achieved by the sliders, which was a popular way of interaction in the 70s and 80s for automobiles. The main issue with sliders was that they were difficult to make fine adjustments. Once you applied some force, they would go to the other end easily.
The year is 1983 and the second generation arrives with buttons grouped together, which enables a much more organised layout. The functions are next to the gauge cluster which is easier to find compared to first generation. Another feature is that turn signals and wipers have now icons so you would know which one is which. It can be considered as an easy to use dashboard as there is some kind of logic to this layout.
In 1991, third generation was unveiled and we said goodbye to sliders with a good reason: they were difficult to use and was not allowing for fine adjustments easily. What came instead is arguably the most efficient way to adjust a set value: the knob. The biggest and obvious advantage was that you wouldn’t have to look at the knobs whilst driving, with muscle memory, you would find them easily and change the value. The lights are also adjusted by a knob next to the steering wheel, which is ubiquitous now with nearly all cars.
In 1997, VW made some logical decisions and changed the places of some features including climate control and the hazard lights. The different sizes of the knobs in the climate control area helped identify which one is which without looking at them whilst driving. The hazard lights button became bigger and visually more striking, thanks to a big red triangle. This helped drivers find it easily when needed in stressful conditions. This interior design made so many things right for it’s time that it became the foundation for next generation of Golfs and many other car models that followed.
In 2003 things started to get complicated, suddenly there were more buttons on the dashboard, especially in the infotainment system. The buttons on the steering wheel helped with accessing many functions and features but if you wanted to change the radio station, you would have to find the right button on the system, which meant you would have to look at the layout more often. This obviously meant more distraction from the road. Fortunately the cars were getting safer!
I can say that early 2000s is when the big problems began by the introduction of navigation features. Before them, the driver interaction with the car involved using the knobs occasionally to change the climate controls and turn on/off headlights. These were mostly achieved with muscle memory. With the introduction of a digital map on the dashboard, the drivers were urged to look to a screen to check their location rather than the road ahead.
In 2008, we saw an early glimpse of our new enemy, a touch screen. You could even connect your new mobile phone using Bluetooth and take the calls whilst driving within this infotainment. What a brilliant way to lose your focus! At least the graphics were clearer and the colors were better, thanks to a new display. The hero of the dashboard now was undoubtedly this touch screen and drivers found themselves trying to interact with a perfectly smooth glass surface with no tactile feedback, meaning you had to look to find the feature you wanted to adjust. There was also a new directional pad (D-pad) on the steering wheel that eased some of the pain but most of the features could only be accessed via the touch screen.
In 2012 we had the Golf Mk7 with a slightly bigger screen and some knobs that resemble Mk5. The main problem was not addressed though, which was the fact that we were looking at the maps on a screen positioned in between the air ventilation and heating controls rather than the road itself. I wonder why VW was thinking that the air vents were more important than the essential information and features.
Golf Mk7 Facelift:
The new facelift Golf was unveiled in 2018 with added safety features and minor visual changes here and there. The screen is still located in the same place but this time they increased the screen size to 9.2 inch (offered as an option).
Within each version, they increased the size of the screen and added more features that can only be accessed via touch. Before moving any further, I would like to highlight the obvious problem here: the position of the screen. I find it placed too low on the dashboard. I think it is causing too much distraction off the road.
The green area is the road ahead where your focus should be all the time, the blue area is where you get essential info about the vehicle and the red area should have been placed higher or in other terms, closer to the road.
It looks like VW is actually aware of the issue and trying to rectify it, one step at a time. Take a look at the new Polo (usually called as Golf’s smaller version) for instance:
The new generation Polo seems to have addressed the distraction issue by placing the infotainment screen to a higher position, to the same line with the gauge cluster. The air ventilation is now below the screen, which is a move in the right direction. I think VW couldn’t change the position of the infotainment screen on Golf Mk7 due to some legacy engineering hurdle but I would not be surprised if they were to come up with a similar layout to Polo on the Mk8.
Placing the infotainment screen closer to the road is now becoming a trend as almost all manufacturers are doing it now:
Not all car manufacturers follow this trend though, Peugeot for instance, has experimented with a gauge cluster higher on the dashboard. In order to make it work, they had to reduce the radius of the steering wheel though:
It was another step in the right direction, the gauge cluster was almost like a head up display! There were also significantly fewer buttons and dials on the dashboard compared to the competition, achieved only by putting heating controls inside the infotainment screen. One step forward and another step back!
Let’s not forget about Tesla:
Regardless your view on the brand, we can all agree that Tesla has shaken the automotive industry. They do almost everything different from the competition, including their infotainment system. On one hand, they have proven that they make good, fast and reliable cars. Elon Musk usually highlights how safe their vehicles are, and that’s true, NHTSA recently awarded Tesla Model 3 with five stars. Model S and X also had impressive results when they were released, but these results show protection of the passengers in a crash. The distraction caused by their infotainment system whilst I am driving is a different story. AAA found out that Tesla Model S required “very high” demand from the user to interact with, thanks to a giant touch screen display along with other surprising cars in the list, including a safe Volvo XC60 and an Audi Q7.
The minimalist design approach resulted fewer buttons on Model 3 with some quirks, for instance if you wish to adjust side mirrors, you have to go to a menu and select it from the screen, then you can use the buttons on the wheel to adjust the angle. Do you want to take something from your glove box? Good luck, you guessed it right, you have to use the infotainment screen to go to a menu and select it. Is it simpler because there are fewer buttons or is it more complex as you need to use a touch screen?
Let’s take a look at another example of how interior designs have been evolving into simpler layouts at the expense of putting everything into the screens:
This was how Focus looked back in 2011, fortunately the new generation Focus has fewer buttons on the center console:
Another admirer of this trend. The formula is simple actually: make the infotainment screen bigger, place it as high as possible on the center console and put as much features as possible in it to reduce the number of buttons and knobs. I welcome the simpler looks but how good is all of this if I can’t use them safely?
Danger of distraction
The modern cars have started to look simpler to use with fewer buttons and knobs but the looks can be deceiving! Study after study, we come to the same conclusion: drivers are struggling to interact with the infotainment systems and they are distracting. If you are stationary, fine, do whatever you want, take your time, enjoy the content that is available on your fingertips but if you are driving, good luck!
The number of pedestrian deaths since 2010 on American roads have increased but there is no proof that this is related to infotainment distraction; smart phones are the number one suspect as you may expect but assuming that you are a caring driver, obeying the law and not using your mobile phone whilst driving, the second biggest distraction in your car is your infotainment screen. It is clear that as car manufacturers introduce more features, it’s just going to get worse.
At this point you might be thinking about Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as a solution to all this but I have some news, even though they are well thought and less demanding than the infotainment system in your car, they are still distracting. The visual and cognitive demand from these systems are just too much.
So what can the manufacturers do about it?
We need to be less reliant on touch screens to start with. Some manufacturers have already solved these issues by putting the main interaction back to knobs, and by some manufacturers, I am referring to German car makers. I think it would be fair to say that the care and attention to innovative interaction methods whilst driving all started with iDrive by BMW. Before iDrive, the main interaction method was physical buttons on the screen (if your car had a screen), similar to what you might find on an ATM but things were about to change.
In 2001, BMW introduced the first generation of iDrive on the new 7 series. The system featured a knob and a main screen based on a modified version of Windows CE. It was a hit right away as it was intuitive and easy to use. There was no need to reach out the screen to press some buttons or touch the screen, your hand would be where it would normally be, on a comfortable position, yet still interact with the information displayed, thanks to the big control knob.
You would of course rotate the knob, as expected, but you could also press the knob for confirmation. This was the game changer in car interaction in the early 2000s.
Today, not only you can rotate and push but also use it like a joystick to move it in 4 directions. The top part has also become sensitive to touch so you can also write any letter with your fingertip and it will recognise. The iDrive is now on the 6th generation and still going strong. The 7th version is coming soon with some updates but the core technology remained pretty much the same and why wouldn’t? It has been working just fine.
Needless to say, in the following years, all other manufacturers have tried to replicate the success of the knob on their cars, starting with the other German brands.
Fewer screens: Just when I thought things would get better with the knobs (despite some American brands), another trend has emerged which involved putting more touch screens!
It is not clearly shown in this picture but Audi decided to put two small screens on the doors to replace side mirrors (hence the camera on the door), and yes, it means more screens. Audi also thought touch screen is the way forward so they replaced the knobs with a new touch screen on the center console.
Think of it this way, on which car it is easier to turn off the A/C? On the new e-tron or on the Golf Mk4? You can do it on the Golf Mk4 with your eyes closed! That brings me to this question: which interaction method is safer? The sad truth is that after a huge pile of money spent by car manufacturers for R&D, we still haven’t achieved to make basic interactions safer with modern cars.
One brand that comes into mind when we say “safety” is Volvo, but even Volvo can’t dismiss the touch screen idea:
I have started to miss the simplicity of old cars as things get more and more complicated year after year, but hey, if you wish, you can customise your new car to display less information, like this new “classic” layout from Mercedes:
If that helps…
Contextual knobs and buttons: If you decide to put knobs on your center console as a designer, you will probably want to keep them as few as possible, meaning you will have to assign more than just one function to each. A good example for this is hard to find but if you are one of the very few lucky people to own and drive a Bugatti Chiron Sport, you would see this interior:
Four knobs and no infotainment screen? Maybe the designers and engineers wanted you to focus on the road instead of a screen, which makes sense when you are driving over 200 miles per hour. The knobs are contextual here, they change their function depending on the main feature selected by the main knob at the bottom. Who knows, maybe contextual knobs will be more common in the near future as more manufacturers are experimenting with this idea:
Gestures: Some main features can be assigned to new interactions, such as gestures to make interaction whilst driving easier. Google has a few patents regarding how a car can be used with gestures but BMW is already offering a gesture based interaction feature you can buy today on their new 5 and 7 series:
So where does all this leave us? As of today, where touch screens are still the king of the game. When we have fully automated vehicles in the future, we will need less interaction with our cars but there is still some time until we get there.
Until then, we are not in the future we dreamed yet.