Satish Patil, chief designer, Tata Elxsi, on the complexity of today's connected cars and the HMI design challenges they present.
One thing that can be said with certainty about the latest connected cars is that they increasingly behave like electronic gadgets and that they are far more intricate machines with very complex functionality built into them.
There are three principle reasons driving these changes.
One is increasing safety requirements, which means a far higher number of performance and efficiency vehicle parameters need to be tracked in real-time and presented to the driver.
Another is a push by automotive manufacturers to make vehicles as comfortable as possible, which means a proliferation of functionalities such as personalized climate settings, lighting, seating preferences, air quality, and much more.
Finally, the ongoing digitization of cars means that there is an explosion of possibilities and scenarios when it comes to new technologies and connectivity.
The list of new features is swelling like there is no end to it. It now includes things like multiple source multimedia access (built-in radio, media player, auxiliary devices, smartphones), smartphone access functions, in-car convergence of devices, and Internet-based services, including e-mail access, location-based services, maintenance scheduling and media downloads.
All of this means one thing: An exponential increase in options and complexity, which threatens to overload the driver and make the connected vehicle experience that much more distracting.
Distribute the workload
In order to respond to these challenges, designers are constantly exploring new ways to manage and distribute the cognitive workload.
Historically, the automotive human-machine interface (HMI) was geared toward the driver. But if passengers are given greater access to it, they can relieve the driver’s workload by conducting many secondary tasks on the driver’s behalf.
These tasks can be sorted on things like relevance to the driver versus relevance to passengers, or on how accessible they are to the various car occupants.
Another major trend, which has emerged in HMI design in the last couple of years, is truly multimodal HMIs.
While most automotive HMIs rely on touchscreens and physical controls, OEMs are now exploring multimodal interfaces combining voice and gesture with touch and other tactile controls.
The key to success here is achieving the right balance and distribution of functionalities across the different modes of interaction. Also, be it voice, gesture or touch, each of these modes of interaction suffers from design and technology constraints – e.g. fidelity of cameras or accuracy of voice engines when confronted with different dialects and languages.
Unless these new interaction paradigms can be perfected, they may become an added distraction.
Perfect the paradigms
Another challenge is to map out functionalities most appropriate for each mode of interaction and to determine how to switch between different modes.
Let’s take the example of a simple, ubiquitous functionality like the media player. In terms of intuitiveness, it might be easiest to use voice to call up a particular album, but you might want to use gestures to browse through the playlist or jump to the next song.
Solving these complex scenarios carries a much higher premium than skin-deep experiential aspirations of 3D HMI or intricate graphics and animations.
Look for the sum of parts
Finally, also shaping the automotive HMI is the fact that cars can no longer be looked at as stand-alone systems. Today’s cars are starting to become part of a big connected ecosystem, in some sense much like computers and smartphones.
This makes automotive HMIs much more fluid and context-driven. It also enables consumers to relate more easily to them.
But don’t expect things to last. Whether automotive players want to admit it or not, they will have to face the fact that their HMIs come with a much shorter shelf life – both on account of peer pressure and the need to constantly incorporate new use case scenarios and technological advances.
Satish Patil is chief designer at Tata Elxsi, a design subsidiary of Tata Group.
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Content and Apps for Automotive USA 2013 on Dec. 11-12 in San Francisco, Consumer Telematics Show 2014 on Jan. 6 in Las Vegas, Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2014 on March 12-13 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014 on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013, The Automotive HMI Report 2013, Insurance Telematics Report 2013 and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012.
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