A critical look at the driving experience and why we should demand more from car manufacturers and authorities.
This article is about all the badly designed experiences associated with operating a car in the US and many other places around the world.
IT’S INTERESTING HOW CARS are zealously designed and labored over objects, with aesthetics, feel, touch and tone taken to whole another level. Thousands of hours are spent and iterations made designing the perfect curvature, front grill, headlamps shape and interior upholstery to increase desirability. At the same time you can buy an expensive car today which will not warn you that your headlights are off at night; No one will teach you how to set up your mirrors correctly(so you don’t have blind spots) and your “beloved” infotainment system will never update its software. I’m going to walk you through stupid and obvious problems(and some solutions) car makers and authorities got us so accustomed to a point where we even stopped asking “Why it’s like that?”.
How come, we can have adaptive cruise control, engine on/off at a stop, lane departure warning, automatic brakes on the expensive model trims and at the same time not even auto-headlamps for the base models?
The car can remind you to turn them off, but can’t remind you to turn them on, or even better, it could turn them on for you? How expensive could it be and why is it not mandatory?
You can live in a city and drive for miles without realizing you are driving at night with no headlights due to the street lighting. Which is great, right? Well, when you do that, your car turns into a “ghost” at night. You become almost invisible to other drivers at night (even with ample street lighting), so the chances of someone cutting into you are increased exponentially.
Even if you buy a car with auto-headlights, the control stalk or switch is designed in a way that it doesn’t favor or default to auto-headlights. Further more, it doesn’t even warn you in case you forgot them in OFF position at night. Not even an indication in the instrument cluster.
Ideally, the vehicle should provide you with the headlights which maximize your vision based on your environment and conditions without you even noticing. And maybe a manual overwrite if needed, but with warnings which will at least remind you you are driving without the appropriate lights.
Headlight controls are bizarrely different from car to car too. Those could be on the left stalk, right stalk, left panel, right panel or separate stalk labeling is semi-consistent from car to car. Often Headlight controls are not even bundled together in a single area. Sometimes you have to know your fog lights are on the other side of the panel next to the mirror controls.
They are very important especially on the highway. People either always forget to use them or when they do, they forget to turn them off after using them. If you drive often, you probably have seen at least one vehicle with blinker on for miles on end.
If car makers simply change the green blinking light indicator on your dash to red after a minute, may be enough to remind you to turn it off. Or even turn it off automatically. Not to mention, the indication (audible and visual) for the turn signal has not evolved at all since its inception. Even Tesla just went ahead and just copied it on its Model 3 screen, seemingly without any thought. I’m sure a few engineers can find a way to use machine learning to recognize lane changing behaviors to assure ample signaling and prevent accidents.
Instead of that, car makers are focused more on making the car more beautiful. By removing the amber turn signal dedicated lamps in the back (since it’s not regulated in US, I guess) in favor of reusing the brake light to handle the turn signals as well. All that done of course keep the rear end of the car cleaner and more stylish. Which creates a little ambiguity and opens a bunch of edge cases and opportunities for more accidents or at least increase of cognitive load for drivers. Here it is a detailed video about it — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O1lZ9n2bxWA
Diesel nozzle should be larger so it won’t fit the filler pipe of gasoline vehicle, however recently a lot of gas station operators and car makers are standardizing them to be the same as the gasoline nozzles and filler pipes pipes for the diesel tanks. This makes it way too easy to fuel your car with the wrong fuel. Which pretty much means a new car or repairs within the multiple thousands of dollars. And it’s easy to mix it up, especially if you own a diesel truck and a gasoline car. Sure, there’s color coding (btw, different in different countries) and sometimes the nozzles are placed in different locations, which I guess is enough to blame it on the driver in case of a mistake.
Controls (almost everything) which impact the safety of your drive be standardized and intuitive. However, basic controls vary quite a lot. To a point where every time you which a car, you have to spend time learning about all the quirks and features. Here are a few
- Shift gear lever… P D N R all good, but then… L, M, S, +, -, and then we add driving modes.
- On stick shifts, Reverse is often in a different position or it requires a special sequence of actions in order to shift into it. Sometimes there’s a button+lever movement, sometimes you have to push or pull the lever in and move it to a specific location.
- Mirrors adjustments controls vary drastically as well. Just recently, we had to get a rental at night just to realize mirror adjustment controls are well hidden on the left side driver panel, not even backlit. Even the dome light didn’t help (steering wheel cast a shadow on them).
- Good thing at least some of the iconography is standardized. But then, car makers start to put cryptic icons on other additional quirks, which they didn’t have time to make intuitive enough. Then, you have to sift through pages of owner’s manuals (more on that later) and that’s only if you are curious enough. Most people probably don’t even bother. Which renders a feature that costs money to manufacture useless. And guess who’s paying for it.
These things are very noticeable when you have to rent a car. You almost have to have a checklist to make sure, you are familiar where things are before you go. Thankfully, at least manufacturing costs push car makers not to “innovate” from model to model on some of the controls. So, if you stick with a brand you will avoid some of these headaches.
I understand there are technical and manufacturing problems to all the things I mentioned. Trim levels, model variations, and other cost-prohibitive factors etc. However, it feels like these small interaction improvements and standardizations are overlooked in favor of interior styles, look and feel. Not only that, they keep migrating from year to year, unaddressed for years.
The infotainment system
My favorite topic of all. The infotainment systems are most likely the crappiest consumer software and hardware on the planet. They should be in every UX textbook in the section of “how not to design user experience”. For every UX mishap, you can think of at least 2 car infotainment systems that have it. Here’s a breakdown of the major problems
The hardware(which is inevitably part of the driver experience) is incredibly bad. Most touch screen sensitivity is worst than the first iPhone from 2008. If we exclude Tesla for a moment, we just started to see (2018) screens coming in cars with decent touch sensitivity allowing swipes and multi-finger capabilities, still not even close to the sensitivity and responsiveness of the first iPhone.
The crappy screens coupled with slow processing power are already a recipe for bad user experience. Yet, the car makers don’t stop there. On top of the bad hardware, you get an appalling user experience design. The information architecture is nonexistent in most cars. Basic navigation patterns are often broken and features are most likely buried under a pile of avoidable interactions.
User interface design
To top all that, the user interface design is also horrible. Most designs don’t even offer clear hints on what’s tap-able and what it’s not. Often, it’s not clear if something is on or off. To add one more layer of problems, the choice of typefaces by the designers of these things often signals lack of formal design training. Choosing semi-professional display font with no thought for readability and usability coupled with skeuomorphic graphics trying to mimic the car’s interior and/or exterior style shows a lack of understanding of the medium you are designing for. Even Tesla is guilty of following that trend in their first few versions of the software for model “S”.
In 2014 Geoff Teehan wrote an article about the absurdity of the infotainment systems in expensive cars. Sadly, almost nothing has changed 4 years later.
To make things even worst, no car maker (except Tesla) offers any types of updates for the software. Even after Tesla introduced autopilot feature on a software update over the air, still rest of the car developers doesn’t get it. Just now, 2019 models are marketed with “update” software features.
I’m going to only briefly touch on the debate on how useful and/or dangerous are the touch screens in our cars. Touch screens allow a freedom of interactions, however the only feedback they offer is visual which means redirecting your attention off the road. Compared with a well designed physical button, lever or stalk which lends itself to the action it has to perform and you can feel yourself around it along with the motion feedback it gives you, makes it far more intuitive.
No car maker has even thought about designing touch screen interactions that will not require visual feedback. Instead they tend to copy whatever patterns are already established by the big smartphone makers, without realizing the drastic differences of the environment the touch screen is used in. Even glorified Tesla design team falls into that trap, especially with Model 3.
Much safer solution might be the Heads up display (HUD) integrated with the windshield it could keep your eyes on the road and offer the needed information along with good steering wheel controls. I know some cars offer HUD as an option, however it’s always with very limited scope of features. It’s very easy to imagine very intuitive navigation system with some AR(augmented reality) using HUD.
Blind spots and the way we educate drivers.
Surprise! Almost all side mirrors are capable of covering your blind spots. You just have to set them up properly. Instead of raising awareness and training people how to set up their mirrors, driving instructors to teach them to look over their shoulders and car makers add expensive cameras and technologies to fix something that is not broken.
Take a look at the illustration below. Introduced in SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) with no apparent trade-offs, except the getting use to it.
Side note. US drivers don’t know how to drive through rotaries(roundabouts). It’s scary. Not sure if they teach student drivers how to go about them.
Signage and more specifically parking restrictions signage.
Shifting gears a bit to governing bodies. Parking restrictions and requirements vary from city to city, state to state and country to country. Not only that, but the signage is designed appallingly bad pretty much everywhere. I’m going to spare you the details here, but if you are interested here’s a good read about that by Nikki Sylianteng — http://nikkisylianteng.com/project/parking-sign-redesign/ and a good talk — https://vimeo.com/130161752 Here project is a great way to organize parking restrictions in a more easy to comprehend manner.
Last year and this year models of some high-end sedans have their owners manuals uploaded in the infotainment system (WOW :)) what an innovative approach. Welcome to the 21st century! Now let’s invent a keyword search on a car screen so owners could sift through all that information more effectively… Or even better, let’s make cars that doesn’t require 300 page manual.
Looking on how cars get designed as an outsider, it feels like most of the budget is spent on look and feel. And some of the important driver-vehicle interactions work is given to an intern to design on a Friday afternoon, right before the design handoff. Car makers are missing a ton of opportunities to delight and deliver value to their customers by not thinking long and hard how to improve driving experience with anything other than pleasing expensive upholstery. Not to mention authorities and governing bodies which don’t even employ designers.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some great features car makers implement that increase safety and provide some delight. Top-Down 360 view when parking is a great delight and functional benefit. Similar are the peek and blind spot cameras when merging into roads. Especially, the last couple of years things started to change for good more rapidly.
Despite all the advances, everyone except Tesla, can’t even make an acceptable infotainment system software not to mention machine learning AI for the complexities of real life imperfect roads. Autonomous driving has long ways to go, before we can all be passengers in our cars.
Sadly, there are not enough status quo challengers in the automotive industry due to its many complexities and capital heavy investments. Which means, we should all start reminding both car makers and governing bodies that we expect more.