Evolution of the car dashboard

It’s always interesting to dive into the history books, to learn how the car dashboard changed over time. At the end of the 19th century the first cars replaced horse bridles with a steering wheel, not much more. Around the 1930s, gauges and controls related to the engine populated most of the dashboard, influenced by aircraft design.

In the years to follow, more space was allocated to other features that users really liked. Comfort played a more important role, such as the air conditioning around the 1940s. Media such as the radio (1950s), extended later by cassette or CD, also fitted nicely with the act of driving. And as technology evolved, we got amazing things like phones (1980s) and navigation using GPS (1990s) integrated into our cars. Luckily digital screens were also invented, which could be used for more than one functionality, freeing up some space in that increasingly populated dashboard.

While functionalities covering the infotainment (media, connectivity & navigation) were being integrated into the car, consumer products that did those same things, started to fit in our pockets. People started to use these devices daily and everywhere they went, also in cars. Compared to integrated infotainment, these devices were cheaper and very familiar to us.

Digital products that fit your pocket (kind of)

And then the smartphone showed up…

… with all previously mentioned functionalities and more, integrated into one device. And with the introduction of mobile internet, we can use all these functionalities everywhere, at any given time. You tap on an address your friend messaged you, open it up in your favourite navigation application and you are ready to drive. And while you are driving off, that podcast you were listening to, simply keeps on playing. A seamless experience, which is just very convenient.

So, we don’t go anywhere without our beloved smartphone and that also means that we take it with us into our car. There is one problem with these devices though, they are designed to attract your attention. Imagine yourself at a dinner party with friends, having a great time. At some point, something in your pocket vibrates, again… and again. At this point you start wondering; “who is it?”. So, you grab your phone. Happens to the best of us, and sometimes even without thinking.

At a dinner party this might be a bit socially awkward nowadays, but in a metal box going 130 km/h on the highway surrounded by other drivers (that of course are worse drivers than you are) this is, to say the least, ridiculously dangerous.

Silicon Valley has solutions

Although kind of creating the problem, Silicon Valley is trying hard to solve it as well. It’s now possible to block distractions by special ‘not disturb’ modes while driving. Other solutions are optimising the usage of the smartphone for driving. A nice example of this is Drivemode, that basically allows you to use apps safer, by improving readability and increase touch hit areas. Pre-composed messages or music suggestion try to make the driver touch the phone as little as possible while driving.

The best solution currently seems to be integration. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto allow users to mirror their phone on the car’s display, and simultaneously connect it to the integrated speakers and microphone. Although it’s not a full integration, it’s a step in the right direction of making infotainment functionalities safer to use while driving.

Apple CarPlay (image by Apple)

Functionality is limited however, which is good. Sending a tweet or browsing through your holiday pictures are not supported while driving. Besides what to show, careful thought is given to how things are shown. When a message is received, content is never shown on the display. Content is always limited, and thereby not attracting your attention. So basically, the opposite of what we are used to on the smartphone itself. Jake Zukowski calls this slippy design vs. sticky design in this amazing presentation. Both Apple and Google design most functionalities with a focus on voice. Although this technology is rapidly improving, the cognitive load due to current ‘limitations’ should not be ignored.

Even though these mirrored experiences are slightly different than on the smartphone itself, it is still familiar enough to people. Interactions and conventions are recognised and thus easy to understand. And besides safety, these systems facilitate that previously mentioned seamless experience. Just plug your phone in the car and continue with your digital needs, although the next step obviously will be a wireless connection.

The car 

It is clear the design process in the car industry is different compared to the one in tech companies. The software industry moves fast, with rapid iterations and updates through lots of (A/B) user testing.

Meanwhile the car industry’s process is not (yet) fit for this way of working. It has a production time of up to 5 years. So, companies come up with future ideas and showcase these at car shows. These are often very technology-pushed ideas instead of user-focused, as it is very hard to predict future user-needs. Also, the design department is behind closed doors, and only after 5 years they can finally test their product with users, when it’s finished. And since the car industry is not a big fan of ‘unsafe’ over-the-air updates, improving it through A/B testing is simply impossible.

So far, the integration of digital products was more another checkbox to check and not the main point of innovation or research. A trip always has a destination, which people often want to enter into the navigation system at the beginning of the trip. When not yet driving. Still most solutions to enter an address are optimised for driving. Safe, but cumbersome to use when standing still.

Software as key differentiator

The car industry needs to make this digital transformation. Software in the vehicle is simply becoming a bigger part of the car experience. Especially since we are shifting away from combustion engines to electric drivetrains, software might actually become one of the key differentiators. This happened in the phone industry as well, electric motors are the Snapdragons of vehicles.

The Tesla Model 3’s screen is the centre of attention. Compared to other vehicles with a lot of haptic controls, this might resemble something. (image by Tesla)

And the smartphone market is now lead by two operating systems, similar to the desktop market. The fight to be the winning operating system of the market has now started. And car manufacturers are fighting along, as they don’t want to lose control over the future car experience.

My two cents

Although I made the comparison with tech products, cars are a bit more complex. Not only from engineering perspective, but also when it comes to the interaction people have with it. A car doesn’t get thrown away after 2 years, instead it will last decades. This creates a challenge for both hardware and software design. With respect to software, over-the-air updates are inevitable, yet an overlooked bug can cost lives.

When designing, you also have to take into account many users. The driver that is preparing the trip, the driver sitting still in a jam, the driver that is searching for a location in a dense urban area and the driver driving on the highway through the pouring rain. Also, there are the passengers, in the front and in the back. And these passengers also change the interaction the driver has with the car when they are present. Think about a conversation between the driver and passenger being interrupted by the lady providing the next navigation instruction. Besides all this, the interaction with other road users have to be taken into account as well.

When it comes to interaction methods, touchscreens are definitely here to stay. But as they clearly lack muscle memory, touching them while driving should not be the primary input method. Safety critical functions such as switching on wipers or turn indicators should remain as haptic controls and close, or better yet, on the steering wheel. Voice could definitely be one of the primary interaction methods while driving, especially looking at how fast this technology is improving. Once this reaches a level that we can talk to our cars in a very natural and human way, otherwise complex tasks could be achieved with a simple sentence the user did not have to think about. And that is where we are heading, a more humanised UI, that takes into account all human sensors.

Imagine a co-pilot sitting next to you. One that will read out loud your latest text message and be able to reply for you. One that can change the temperature of your seat. One that can search for the nearest fuel station and guide you there. But more importantly, one that understands not to distract you, when you are just crossing a complex intersection. One that knows you can’t listen just now, since your kid in the back is crying loudly. And one that double checks whether you saw the car coming from the right.

This will be covered in part 2, where I will focus on designing this contextual aware co-pilot. will play a vital role in designing the interaction (or collaboration) people will have with them. So, stay tuned!

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