As smartphones become the center of our increasingly connected lifestyles, drivers are starting to expect their in-car infotainment to mimic the experience. Jan Stojaspal reports on how human-machine interface (HMI) designers are keeping up
There is something reassuringly familiar about CUE, the brand-new infotainment system from Cadillac. Its vivid eight-inch LCD touch screen lights up at the approach of one’s hand. Its customizable home screens flow seamlessly from one into the other when nudged along with a horizontal swipe. Soft tactile feedback confirms one’s menu selections.
The feeling of familiarity, which extends to CUE’s natural voice recognition and apps-focused graphic interface, is far from accidental. In a culmination of a four-year effort to give its customers a rich user experience that would be both enjoyable and intuitive to use, Cadillac has produced something that looks and acts remarkably like a smartphone. (For more on smartphones, see Telematics, smartphones and the future of connected infotainment.)
This was inescapable, says Kathy S. McMahon, program manager for connected infotainment at General Motors. “We are taking pages out of consumer electronics customer interface styles,” McMahon says. (For exclusive business analysis and insight on telematics and human-machine interfaces, or HMIs, download TU’s Human Machine Interface Report 2012 Edition.)
The smartphone with its easy-to-use touch-based interface is the most obvious influence. But the car industry is also starting to take cues from tablets, connected televisions, personal computers and even medical devices that help the chronically ill manage everything from glucose levels to severe allergies.
“When you are talking about 1.5 billion or more mobile devices being sold globally, it just has an overwhelming impact on the industry,” says Roger Lanctot, associate director, automotive multimedia and communications service, Strategy Analytics. “So you are going to see more displays in cars, you are going to see more icon-based user interfaces, you are going to see more systems that are less designed around a radio than around a display and user interface, in essence a kind of smart display.” Remote software upgradability and social media integration are also becoming increasingly important.
The trend does not mean that traditional knobs, push buttons or steering wheel controls are about to disappear from the car. The HMI in the car requires a range of alternative controls to suit different usage preferences.
Nor is the user interface likely to converge around a single predictable standard, though the GENIVI car industry alliance is pushing for a broad adoption of an open-source development platform that would make it easier to write apps for a wider variety of car brands. (For more on apps, see Special report: Telematics and apps.)
But the impact of mobile and consumer electronics on embedded unit development does have a way of building its own momentum. “As we try to put interfaces out there that look more like consumer electronics, what you end up finding is that customers’ expectations are shaped by that,” McMahon says. “I think that it’s a little chicken or egg.” (For TU’s comprehensive coverage of HMIs, see Special report: Telematics and the human-machine interface.)
CUE, which will debut on the XTS luxury sedan and will also be available on Cadillac’s ATS sedan and SRX luxury crossover, is one of the most successful infotainment implementations to date, according to industry watchers.
It packs a full suite of infotainment, navigation and communication tools, including 3D GPS navigation and map-integrated Doppler weather reports, Pandora and Stitcher audio streaming apps, built-in HD radio, seamless integration with OnStar, and the latest Bluetooth hardware for easy access to contacts, audio files and other smartphone features. Natural voice commands are obeyed with Siri-like precision. And multitouch gesture controls are implemented throughout the user interface.
To enlarge the navigation map, one uses a familiar spread gesture. A quick two-finger flick is all that’s needed to send turn-by-turn navigation instructions from the center stack display to the 12.3-inch LCD instrument cluster.
A number of other carmakers and Tier 1 suppliers to the automotive industry are pursuing similar strategies. Since late 2010, Ford customers can enhance their in-car connected experience with MyFord Touch, the company’s next generation infotainment system that features a 4.2-inch color display in the instrument cluster and an eight-inch color touch screen in the center stack. As of last year, Ford drivers also have access a host of smartphone apps via SYNC AppLink. The apps include Pandora, iHeartRadio, Stitcher and Orangatame OpenBeak.
According to Jim Buczkowski, director of research and advanced engineering, electrical and electronics, Ford Motor Company, apps are an important part of today’s infotainment experience. But Buczkowski also pays attention to a number of future trends that can have an impact on the connected vehicle, including how people use their smartphones to make purchases or how Ford could help drivers manage diabetes or monitor allergens outside.
Even BMW may eventually replace its signature iDrive controller with a more intuitive HMI pioneered by consumer electronics. The iDrive was launched in 2001 in an attempt to reduce cockpit clutter by merging a wide range of controls into a single controller located in the center console, where it is within easy reach of the driver’s hand.
Although BMW continues to see iDrive as the cleanest, most ergonomic way of controlling the burgeoning array of infotainment offerings, the solution has drawn criticism for being difficult to master and contributing to driver distraction. (For more on distracted driving, What DOT’s new distraction guidelines mean for telematics, DOT’s distraction guidelines as challenge and opportunity, Distraction guidelines as a telematics business opportunity, and Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps.)
“We are convinced that the iDrive system is one of the best ways to use while driving a car,” says Eckhard Steinmeier, head of BMW ConnectedDrive, the German carmaker’s proprietary suite of telematics services. “Nevertheless, of course we have to think about new future concepts. Nothing is forever, and we are open.”
Meanwhile, Panasonic is using the breadth of its many companies, which produce everything from in-flight entertainment systems to connected television sets, to work on future concepts for cloud-based infotainment capable of things like following a person around, no matter what mode of transport he or she chooses. “The lifestyle now is very mobile; there are no boundaries anymore,” says Hakan Kostepen, executive director of product planning and innovation at Panasonic Automotive Systems America.
Last June, Panasonic further deepened its involvement in the infotainment space by teaming up with AT&T’s Emerging Devices Organization to test new technologies, applications and concepts around in-car wireless connectivity.
Jan Stojaspal is a regular contributor to TU.
For TU’s comprehensive coverage of HMIs, see Special report: Telematics and the human-machine interface.
For all the latest telematics trends, join the industry’s other key players at Telematics Detroit 2012 on June 6-7, Insurance Telematics USA 2012 in September in Chicago, and Telematics Munich 2012 on October 29-30.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s Human Machine Interface Report 2012 Edition.
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