Personal mobility is in the early stages of the most significant transformation since the birth of the Ford Model T more than a century ago. A shift from personal ownership to shared use of vehicles is expected to accelerate as an important means of enabling mobility while alleviating the negative aspects our transportation ecosystem. Navigant Research’s report, Alternative Revenue Streams for Automakers, projects that there were will be more than 26 million members of carsharing services by 2023. Automakers recognize the threat this change represents to their business model, and they are scrambling to adapt, but what about the drivers constantly exposed to changing user interfaces every time they use a different vehicle?
As thousands of engineers from across the globe gathered in Detroit recently for the SAE 2015 World Congress, one of the more surprising topics of discussion was whether vehicles should adopt a common human-machine interface. While politicians like to point at the rise of cellphone use in vehicles as a cause of driver distraction, more fundamental design issues can be just as problematic. As more functionality comes to vehicles, controls are needed. Anyone using a new vehicle for the first time is likely to be overwhelmed trying to figure out basic functions like climate control. Manufacturer’s desire to differentiate their products just makes things worse.
Taking Action against Distraction
When Apple introduced the iPad in January 2010, late-CEO Steve Jobs said that anyone that knew how to use an iPhone already knew how to use an iPad. A big part of Apple’s success over the years has been the consistency of its user interfaces. They evolve over time, but they stay consistent enough that users can migrate from one product to another. The same cannot be said for most automobile features, which often vary widely within an individual brand’s lineup.
David Acton, managing principal of P3 North America, suggested at the congress that all vehicles should have a common user interface to help avoid the distraction. This may actually be a step too far considering the technologies available now and in the near future. For example, the Tesla Model S already features a 17-inch touch screen display in the center console for the various controls and displays with another reconfigurable display screen in the traditional instrument location ahead of the driver. As a virtual control interface, these displays can be reprogrammed to suit a driver’s needs.
Google’s Chrome browser and ChromeOS automatically save a user’s settings to the cloud, reloading bookmarks and extensions whenever that user logs in from any computer. Logging out can delete those settings from the machine. If every manufacturer were to include reconfigurable control and display surfaces in their vehicles, a driver could set preferences and then immediately save them either to a cloud account or locally on a phone they connect to the vehicle. From then on, every time they get behind the wheel of a new vehicle, they could connect their phone or log in to instantly retrieve their preferred control layout. Preferences could even include physical settings like the seat and mirror positions.
Best of all, these virtual control surfaces could be integrated into surroundings that still leave flexibility for designers to differentiate their products. The combination of virtual controls and connectivity could enable a blend of personalization and familiarity that reduces complexity for drivers as we make the transition toward a more shared transportation ecosystem that reduces urban congestion and energy use.