Designing a Better Interface for Humans & Cars

What do you get when you cross a car with a smartphone? A lot more frustration than you'd expect. As there are different behavior associated with controls, it's not such a simple thing to put tablet-like controls into cars.

As cars get increasingly high-tech and contain more complex controls for built-in systems, the knobs and switches used for controls in the past have come to be replaced by sleek, embedded buttons. The change of style brings up questions of designing for an effective human-machine interface that doesn't sacrifice function to form. A partnership between Flex, a Sketch-to-Scale solutions, and Aito, producer of aptic interface technology, seeks to address those challenges.

Aito steering wheel buttons
Image courtesy: Aito

Aito steering wheel buttons

Image courtesy: Aito

Car controls used to be fairly simple. You used switches for gears, turned a knob for your radio, and used some buttons to open windows and doors. But that is changing. As we saw in Consumers Get on Board with Connected Cars, cars now offer smartphone-like capabilities to tap into the internet for information, music, and even streaming movies (for the passengers rather than the driver, one hopes).  However, even when they want those functions, drivers need a different form of interface for their cars than the kind they use on their smartphones or tablets.

When the new car infotainment systems came out, David Champion, the senior director of Consumer Reports' auto test center at the time, was quoted in the New York Times article about the problems with  MyFord Touch that, he insisted extended beyond the software.  He was quoted, saying, “It is a very complex system that they've put in, that works great if you're in a showroom and not having to look where you're going.”

Champion contended that the though the touch screen can be more aesthetically pleasing, it is more difficult for drivers to navigate than the more tactile controls that can be adjusted by feel without looking. Indeed, drivers have complained that such systems contribute to distracted driving.

The problem may stem from assumptions built into the design. NPR quotes Jeremy Anwyl of's observation, “The driving experience is so fundamentally different than, say, the desktop experience.” Based on that premise, he question whether it really makes sense to have “a bunch of guys in a room [who] used to write programs for Microsoft or whoever” working on the problem of how to design for this particular “human-machine interface,” which has to work for a driver who is supposed to be focusing on the road rather than the controls. 

As we can't realistically turn back the clock on car tech, the only way to improve the situation is to go forward. While many car manufacturers have gone the voice-activation route, an approach that poses distractions of its own.  Perhaps the solution lies in rethinking the button itself, keeping the sleek effect while also providing a tactile response. That's what Aito is developing in partnership with Flex, a design that will work for “the cockpit of the future.” 

According to the press release, “Aito's proprietary piezo-based technology provides haptic feedback to a user's fingertip, making smooth surfaces feel as if they were embedded with physical buttons, knobs, shapes, edges or textures.”  This works to improve aesthetics,  as the buttons don't need to be separate pieces that break up the smoothness of a wooden, metal or leather console. They also allow for great economy of space in the car's interior, “reducing the required thickness of the sensor rack to under 0.4 millieters.”

According to Aito's CEO, Peter Kurstjens, the advantage of working with Flex is “design, engineering and manufacturing expertise” that would help them develop “new applications for our solutions,” as well as extending their reach “to new markets.” 

Chris Obey, president of automotive at Flex explained the advantage from his company's perspective: “Aito's technology will allow us to offer our customers the most innovative and intuitive user interfaces as well – enabling the 'cockpit of the future' for smart, connected cars, with more intuitive and versatile controls that merge into the surface material itself.” 

If the controls really are as intuitive and versatile as promised, we may see less distracted driving in the next generation of connected cars. That is something to look forward to.  

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