Where is the car going? The evolution of the car UI

The automotive industry is notoriously conservative. It is quite understandable, given the inherently ‘hazardous’ nature of cars: vehicles need to be clear of clutter in order to give the driver

The automotive industry is notoriously conservative. It is quite understandable, given the inherently ‘hazardous’ nature of cars: vehicles need to be clear of clutter in order to give the driver enough road information and due to this, there’s little want for daring experiments.

Due to this, the state of things hasn’t changed much.  Smartphones, tablets and other gadgets evolve on an almost daily basis whilst the automotive industry stands by the wayside, watching.

Of course, the industry itself is not so blatantly outdated.  Both engine and steering systems have evolved significantly, absorbing the latest advances in technology, but these advances are not seen by the casual observer as they’re all under the hood changes.  The ‘user interface’ (by which we mean, the controls and dashboard) has changed little in the last 30 years.

The problem however runs deeper than mere economics: the automotive industry has to juggle the demands of consumers who want new technology with safety concerns and ergonomics.  With that in mind, lets look at some of the changes that are set to happen in the next few years.

Displays replacing dashboards

It’s common-place for computers, smartphones and tablets to come with touch-screen technology but not much in the way of touch screens exist for vehicles.  The merits are instantly obvious: we’re now all used to tapping and swiping so we’d all feel right at home being able to quickly tap in a map search on our side dashboard.  You  would also be able to control the temperature and other climate controls with a single swipe or tap.


One issue that car manufacturers are still grappling with is screen size: a smaller screen forces you to focus more on the screen than the road, leading to distraction; yet the gargantuan 17″ screens that come in Tesla cars are perhaps overwhelming for most drivers of the world.  There’s still a balance to be found here.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this.  9 years ago the iPhone was first introduced.  Many of us laughed or joked about this large, odd looking device.  Fast-forward to present day and they’re ubiquitous.

Voice controls

However, an area that seems perfectly suited to cars due to our lack of touch or hand control is voice.  Asking your car to re-route around a traffic accident seems to make perfect sense, and it’s not just science-fiction any more.  More and more manufacturers are adding voice control to their cars as standard.

Yet, despite the obvious gains voice controls have been shown to distract drivers just as much as hands-free kits.  A recent study by the university of Utah for the AAA foundation yields curious results.  The university put participants through several several tests, including using voice control whilst driving, changing temperature settings and changing music tracks on the CD player.

What was revealed was that the difference in software had a marked effect on the distraction level of the driver.  The difference between the best and worst voice recognition differed wildly with the best scoring 1.7 and the worst scoring 3.7.  For reference, listening to the radio equals 1.0 whilst using hands free scores 2.0.  Another safe driving advocate, the US National Safety Council states these two additional points of distraction in fact quadruplicate the odds of getting into a car accident.

Researchers noted, that even the most ‘intuitive’ electronic controls cause a great deal of distraction to the driver: they may continue to hold on firmly to the steering wheel and sees the road ahead, but due to human brain’s inability to multi-task, the driver’s mind is occupied processing other signals and won’t react fast enough to a sudden change.

Until the software is quick enough and smart enough to understand what we mean first time, it still (technically) constitutes a risk to driver safety.

Head-up displays

HUD’s or Head’s Up Display is another promising technology that’s quickly gaining ground.  There’s even apps designed to offer rear projection capabilities on your smartphone.  Generally speaking, HUD’s are used to display important real-time driver information such as speed, fuel data and weather.

Marketeers’ dream to display visual ads besides road information and instructions is also highly dangerous

Unfortunately, this technology does have its downsides. Most cost-effective solutions do not offer high quality picture in sunshine.  Another major issue is that human eyes need have a slight delay when adjusting from one light source to another, this can be exaserbated in people with poor eyesight.  Any slight delays can cause major problems whilst driving at high speed.
This problem, may be solved through the use of holographics.  WayRay a russian startup is developing HUD technology that doesn’t have any of the usual drawbacks such as user eyesight delay.  You can see more about what they’re attempting to do in the video below:

The problem is that the company is beset with delivery issues with major prototypes constantly being delayed or postponed.  Despite this, the first shipments should take place in early 2015.


With all this new technology on the horizon one wonders what the real problem will be: will it be HUD glare issues or software glitches in voice commands?  One major concern that all manufacturers will have to manage will be making sure that driving remains pleasurable, safe and efficent whilst also ensuring that the driver isn’t needlessly distracted by gadgets and gizmo’s.