A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the evolution of the dashboard from the 1930s to the present day. Today, we follow up by exploring the future of dashboards and in-car displays with the director of design for HERE Connected Car, Enrique Gallar.
“One of the biggest issues in designing new interfaces for cars is people’s own preconceptions,” says Enrique.
“Since their first appearance, when we’ve looked at digital maps, they’ve been on a rectangular screen: a computer, a mobile phone or a handheld GPS.”
“That legacy is quite inhibiting. So when most people think about what a digital in-car display might be, they basically envisage an iPad stuck on the dash. These handheld devices follow design conventions to immerse yourself in their use.”
The car, however, is a very different setting, he says, and we’re only at the beginning of seeing what is possible with in-car display design. “Within 3 to 5 years, digital screens spread throughout the cabin will likely become the norm. Along with that, we’re already seeing car manufacturers beginning to implement larger heads-up display elements or refocus the all-in cluster, such as with the Audi TT.
“But when you start to look much further ahead, such as within 7 to 10 years. Then I think we’ll see very different integration of digital content blended with physical elements in the cabin.”
What sort of different models?
“In some respects, a rectangular in-car screen is far from ideal. Because of its limited size and the amount of detail people want it to carry, it needs to fit in somewhere, and that somewhere is likely to be outside the normal reach of the driver’s view.”
“That’s not good from a safety perspective. Your vehicle is heavy, solid and moving at speed, along with everything else on the road. The driver’s attention needs to be fixed for as much time as possible on the road. If it takes even a few seconds to understand what’s on a secondary screen, then that’s too long and might have disastrous consequences.”
Enrique and his team are looking at ways to keep drivers' eyes fixed on the road, while delivering the information they need.
“There are lots of different places where we can place information. The whole interior surface of the car is a canvas. So there’s no reason to even try to concentrate everything into a 7-inch rectangle.
Two immediately promising areas are heads-up displays on the windscreen, and the traditional dashboard area underneath the steering wheel, the instrument display cluster.
“One thing that interests us is how you can take the information and show it in different ways according to the canvas you’re using, so ergonomics and purpose of use are the main deciding factors.”
Having a full-blown map projected onto your windscreen is probably not a very safe idea. However, if you showed pieces of information that are faster to read and interpret, then we can reduce the cognitive load of the driving tasks.
Currently, small heads up displays contain the next turn and the speed limit and eventually, we will see an array of sensor data fused with biometric data to contextualize these pieces of information. Ultimately, we intend to provide “peace of mind” from planning, to starting a journey and finally at arriving at your destination.
But every part of your car’s interior could have potential as a control or a display.
“I really like what Audi has done recently with its air-conditioning vents, mixing digital and physical on a practical solution that is integrated, to give a small example of something that’s already on the road.”
New shapes for the moment
Enrique says that they are exploring new map designs that “can convey the route ahead faster, so there is less time spent interpreting.”
The challenge with new designs, however, is that they must take into account how people are used to processing information from their desktops and mobile devices.
“Typically, people read screens from the top-left in Western countries. We tend to overlook, how our brains are trained to read screens always from the same point, these saccades [where the eyes stop in the screen] accumulate time, and make safety more problematic.
“Yet with navigation systems, typically the car position is placed at the bottom centre, so we have a challenge to guide the driver’s eyes.”
Enrique points out that “we can take cues from great yet simple innovations that already make use of context and provide convenience, such as car stereo systems that automatically adjust the volume according to the level of background noise. Like this example, sometimes we can do away with existing controls.”
Sense of direction
“Something else to think about is that we don’t have to limit ourselves to visual information on these displays concentrated into larger chunks. We can also make much more sophisticated use of aural and haptic cues,” he says.
“The absolute need to give audio and haptic feedback is something we’ve especially noticed when you have your eyes occupied with another task [driving]. When people press a button, they expect a ‘click’ of some kind, via physical or audio feedback to provide confirmation whether they’ve successfully completed the action.”
The experiments that Enrique and his team are working on, continue to bring up new possibilities and problems not dreamt of in the past. If there’s one thing for sure, the dashboard of the future will break considerably from tradition.
How would you like to see digital information inside your vehicle, assuming we could communicate anywhere and in any form?