Sunday 22nd September 2019

Save us from feature crashes

Published on August 23rd, 2018

A connected car could end up with so many control panels it would be easier to fly Concorde. I wonder if the licence to pilot will be as expensive?

What worries me about the fast moving world of connected cars, says Nick Booth, is the constant change and endlessly being bamboozled by unfamiliar interfaces. Even now I’m constantly asking questions. Such as: where on earth is the catch for the petrol tank flap? Who asked the radio station to change channels? What on earth does this symbol mean and… whoa! We didn’t hit them, did we?

What’s it going to be like when all the major car makers create a blizzard of apps?

Are they going to ape computer and handset makers and fill your dashboard screen with endless stupid apps you don’t want? It’s not ‘engaging’ when you wade through useless icons for podcasts and share-dealing when you’ve got one hand on the wheel. I’m guessing there will be all kinds of surveillance marketing too, with advertising interventions ruining even the most scenic journeys.

The tasteful delivery of apps will be a critical contest between car makers and app developers, according to Alwin Bakkenes, managing director of Luxoft Automotive.

Even when carmakers invest in making software and do a good job they are onto a hiding, according to Bakkenes. Just making the driver have a different experience from their mobile phone will be enough to infuriate some. Even voice-assistants, which are generally accepted as a great development, won’t fully displace visual concepts. “If Siri started describing the weather in words, you’d find it annoying,” says Bakkenes.

Some carmakers are beginning to accept this, but some see it as a threat. “It means suppliers and platforms are taking their consumer-facing role from them,” says Bakkenes, “it’s a threat for carmakers because it takes their brands away.”

Offering ‘infotainment’ without fatally distracting the driver is the business model for Harman Connected Car.

‘Killer app’

You don’t want to create the wrong kind of ‘killer app’, says Rashmi Rao, the head of advanced engineering for the user experience at Harman.

Nick Booth

Voice control could work but it’s going to need a lot more artificial intelligence. Gesture recognition, proximity detection and eye tracking all have potential to free us from the tyranny of touch screens and buttons with inexplicable symbols on them.

Mobile apps might not end up dominating the connected car, if Rao is right.

“Mobile apps are often designed to be highly interactive, potentially requiring quite long periods of eye focusing, but you want quite the opposite in a car,” says Rao.

According to Harman’s own research drivers will prefer to divide their tasks between different interfaces. Head-up displays are the medium of choice for short and immediate notifications, while the central touchscreen is where media and navigational maps display best, as it’s where drivers prefer to see more graphically intensive information or less time-critical notifications.

“Travelling by car should evolve into something more akin to an in-flight experience.” says Rao.

Like pilots, drivers could be freed for long periods of time to relax or focus on work as they sit at the car’s cockpit in front of an array of flashing lights and controls.

Nice work if you can get it. Mind you, will it be as difficult and expensive to achieve as a pilot’s licence?

The author of this blog is freelance technology writer, Nick Booth.

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