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The State of In-Car UX

Written by Geoff Teehan on April 9,2014 in Design

We are surrounded by bad design. You witness it when you’re taking cash out of an ATM. You experience it when getting your boarding pass from the airport kiosk. You feel it when setting the clock on your stove. Simply put, bad design is everywhere—especially inside your vehicle.

With so many industries placing more value on design, specifically interface design, why does the automotive industry seem to have it all so wrong?

I’ve always had a fascination with cars. As I became more involved in design, my interest in them grew to include the interfaces and information that adorn their consoles and dashboards. In the ’80s and early ’90s, these interfaces were primarily made up of small screens and analogue buttons. Back then, you could swap out your factory stereo for something better. Teenagers primarily did this so they could include better/more amplifiers and better/more speakers—usually to make it loud and full of bass. This would result in the ability to impress friends, annoy parents, and disturb those around you in traffic.

An aftermarket replacement like the Alpine 7903 relied on hard buttons and 7-segments for its UI. The interface on these systems was relatively simple. They relied on hard buttons to control a small feature set (read: the stereo). They would then have an entirely different area of the console that used another set of switches, buttons, and sliders to deal with things like climate control.

The 1995 Nissan Pathfinder shown above with an aftermarket stereo and its separate controls for climate control.

One of the main reasons these systems have gotten worse is that they no longer just deal with the controls on your stereo—they deal with everything. It’s common for the UI in today’s consoles to include inputs for complex stereos, multi-zone climate control systems, navigation, vehicle information centers, phones, contact lists, and a host of other things. The number of operations has risen from a couple of dozen to a few hundred. For example, the Porsche 918 Spyder’s center console controls more than 800 functions. These interfaces simply aren’t efficiently dealing with the number of requirements they have. This is a big part of why things are they way they are, but still, I think it’s only part of the problem.

Beyond the vast number of functions these systems are supporting, there are regulatory and testing requirements, which, I’m sure, need involvement and approval from multiple groups, partners, and organizations that live outside the manufacturer. These factors add more constraints, roadblocks, and bureaucracy that need to be taken into account. It wouldn’t surprise me if these checks and balances literally added years to the ‘design’ process. In other words, some of what was designed into your 2015 vehicle started back in 2013.

Cost is another important factor. It’s expensive and time consuming to produce these systems. Manufacturers are incentivized to create things that can be adapted and adopted for use across a model range, or in some cases, across multiple brands. They want to keep those costs down and have speed to market.

Some of what is being produced is inexcusable for any company, regardless of the constraints put in front of them. There is no excuse for a system to use type that’s unreadable. There is no defence for an interface that uses obtuse iconography. You can’t rationalize a palette with poor contrast or bevelled buttons lifted from Windows 95. Bad design is sometimes just bad design—and it’s all too common in automotive interfaces.

The clarity, simplicity, and aesthetic of these systems should be more important to manufacturers. They should see it as a major opportunity to bring moments of joy and delight to customers. These are systems that allow us to physically interact with their brand. These should not be ugly exercises of frustration. They should exude the brand with every interaction. When I get in a Ferrari California and I turn on the stereo, or adjust the climate control, it should feel like Ferrari. It shouldn’t be the same experience I get when I turn on the stereo in my Chrysler Town & Country minivan. In case you’re wondering, that’s a real example. Can you imagine if those two cars shared another part, like the headlights or door panels? It would never happen. How on earth was this acceptable to them?

In December of 2013, I kicked off a tirade about this on Twitter, which was initially fueled by an interior photo of the Porsche’s new 918 Spyder. At $845,000, it represents the absolute best that Stuttgart can offer. Surely they designed an amazing interface that connects the driver with that impeccably engineered vehicle, right?


One look at the photo and there’s a half-dozen design choices I would question. Some were just design inconsistencies, like why the fonts on the touchscreen differed from those in the input selector. Perhaps there’s a reason, but I’d guess the people who designed those two things didn’t work together. What about the color of a selected item? Why use green on the touch screen and orange below?

Others things seemed like more fundamental flaws in the UX and had to do with the hardware and software. For example, look at the top portion of the image below. I assume, based on the three little dashes above the station grid, that I’m looking at the second of three screens of FM presets on a touch interface. I’d bet $845,000 (I wouldn’t) that the screen doesn’t support a swipe gesture that allows you to navigate across the three screens. Instead, you’ll likely need to tap (or swipe?) the left and right arrows centered above the screen. That doesn’t actually make for a broken interface, but it doesn’t make for a good experience either.

Porsche 918 Spyder ($845,000)

A month later, I stumbled across another image of the Porsche’s interior that illustrated the angle at which this console screen is positioned. I wonder what that actually looks like from the driver’s perspective during daylight.

The shallow viewing angle of the console in the Porsche 918 can be seen in this video at around 2:00.

This got me wondering what the UI systems in other ultra-premium cars looked like. It only took a few quick searches to realize that Porsche’s hypercar was far from the only offender—and it was far from the worst. It didn’t matter who the manufacturer was, or how much the vehicles cost—all of the interfaces sucked.

Despite the growth and maturity of the design industry, I firmly believe that most automotive interfaces have actually gotten worse in recent years. Much of what I’ve found in my ‘research’ isn’t being designed with the driver (or passengers) in mind. Take the dash of the new Audi TT as an example. What is the purpose of that 3D radial menu surrounding an image of the car you’re driving attempting to communicate or solve?

Audi’s new digital dash

It features a 3D model of the car you’re driving and a radial menu of options.

This execution probably wouldn’t have been feasible three or four years ago—an important point, as I think some designers get caught up in doing stuff because new technology allows them to. They don’t stop and ask why they’re doing it.

It’s hard to argue that the touchscreen isn’t a brilliant piece of technology. In just a few short years, it’s changed the way we design and interact with an ever expanding number of devices. How about in our vehicles? To date, I’d say not so much. Software aside, many systems are using sub-par hardware. There are a lot of systems out there that only support a simple tap. Very few support gestures or multi-touch—important factors when you think about a designing a map interface. Then there’s performance. So many of these systems are underpowered and result in slow response times. If putting in proper hardware makes the solution too expensive, then slower hardware isn’t a solution at all.

Twitter rant

I do see a few glimmers of hope, however. Before I get into that, it’s worth sharing some of what started all this. Here are the highlights from my Twitter rant:

Ferrari & Chrysler

California & Chrysler Town & Country Minivan ($200,000 and $30,765 respectively)

McLaren 12c ($250,000)

This is seems to be an update version of the Mclaren UI (orange blocks are my emphasis). They illustrate the inconsistent columns and gutters.

Rolls Royce Phantom ($450,000)

Tesla Model S ($65,000)

Lexus Concept

Lexus LF Concept Car

Pagani Huayra ($1,100,000)

Bugatti Veyron ($2,500,000)

The new F-type Jag ($80,000)

The car is gorgeous but the UI has almost no visual hierarchy in this screen.

Mercedes Benz S-Class ($140,000)

You don’t need to speak German to know the AC is on full blast in your S Class! That mad illustration says it all.

Lamborghini Reventon ($1,500,00)

I’ll give it this: It feels like the car.

Corvette Stingray ($62,000)

More icons styles than horsepower.

Lotus Evora ($80,000)

Squares, circles, multiple gradient styles. The gridless design is the least of its issues.

The Range Rover Sport ($75,000)

This leaves me a tad speechless.

Lexus GS450h ($60,000)

Lexus LFA ($350,000)

2015 Audi TT

The 2015 TT has Nest-like controls on the vents. This seems like a very smart idea that gets away from these huge touchscreens that try and do everything.

Apple & Google

With a billion cars on the planet, the in-car experience is a big enough problem space that companies like Apple and Google have decided to get involved. They’ve begun working with manufactures on their own systems that will integrate into vehicles. Other players like QNX, Windows CE and Linux have been present in cars for awhile. They too are working on better in-car experiences, but they have a history of incremental improvements and, at this point, are probably dealing with legacy problems.

Apple and Google are new entrants in this space. These are companies that create the great devices we use most, so I’m optimistic that they’ll be able to deliver significant improvement over what exists today. A lot of the functions people actually want to use while in their car aren’t part of the car at all—they’re part of your phone. While most manufacturers allow you to connect your phone to your car, the systems are stripped-back versions that are far from seamless. Your music, contacts, messages, and even some of your apps like Google Maps or Waze are either terrible experiences or unavailable. As a result, people just end up using their phones while driving. Better integration will be safer and is likely to reduce accidents and save lives.

It’s shaping up like a battle for the in-car experience between Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Open Automotive Alliance (OAA). Manufacturers are choosing their respective camps. Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, and Volvo are the first brands to choose Apple’s CarPlay. There are 13 others that have committed for future models. Google, on the other hand, has announced that they’ll initially be working with Audi, GM, Honda, and Hyundai.

So what’s to make of GM, Honda, and Hyundai? These companies are signed on to both platforms. Though there’s no answer yet, I wouldn’t hold my breath about both systems being supported simultaneously in the same vehicle. A customer may have to choose which option he or she wants at time of new purchase.

Google and Apple are attacking this problem in very different ways. With CarPlay, you plug in your iPhone 5 and control the interface with Siri or whatever inputs the car supports, e.g. touchscreens and native interfaces like hard buttons, dials, joysticks, and steering wheel inputs. This videoshows how it works in a new Mercedes Benz.

CarPlay Music app

This UI still looks a bit rough on CarPlay. The information seems pretty tight and dense. Then there’s the mystery of the two ‘home’ buttons. Looking at the CarPlay simulator didn’t really tell me much more about them, but it did reveal and confirm something else. When you connect your phone to these systems, the phone itself can’t be used. In other words, for obvious safety reasons, you’re forced to use the screens and inputs in your car.

Google’s approach is a bit more of a mystery, but they appear to be taking a different approach than Apple. The Verge reports that they’ll be tackling their solution to in-car UX in two ways. The first approach will be Android-powered cars. The second, is that they’ll be enhancing Android phones to make them more car-friendly.

There’s certainly some hope on the horizon with Apple and Google, though just how good these systems will be remains to be seen. One thing is clear, though: the current state of all in-car experiences is incredibly bad. For those manufacturers looking to go it alone, I don’t expect much.

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