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The car of the future is the ultimate mobile device. It will be connected, self-driving and smart. We’ll see it in our life­times. The technology is here. Google has tested its self-driving car more than a million miles—that’s 75 years of typical adult driving. Without much fanfare, Tesla just pushed a software update to owners of its Model S flagship sedan that turned it into a self-driving car. Think about that for a second. A software update!

Today, consumers can buy select models from BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini Cooper, Nissan and Volvo that include digital dashboard interfaces offering everything from parking assistance to a Facebook connection. Meanwhile, car manufacturers are reaching out to a cadre of boutique interface designers with automotive experience as they position their brands for the road ahead. Here’s a look at what’s on the horizon as designers settle into the driver’s seat.

Talk to Danny Stillion, executive design director at IDEO, and you will quickly realize IDEO is thinking way beyond the future of dashboard design. It is future-casting the very nature of driving and car ownership itself. Over the last decade, IDEO, a global design and innovation consultancy, has worked on projects for Honda, Toyota, BMW and Ford. It has accumulated enough experience in the domain to roll out a big-picture think piece—an interactive report titled “The Future of Automobility.”

IDEO’s vision of the future involves shared, self-driving cars. It’s a radical rethinking of the driving experience, and it grows out of IDEO’s design thinking approach to problem solving. As Stillion frames it, “Design thinking starts with human-centered design. When it comes to cars, we start with people. We examine their needs and then ask, ‘What’s desirable? What’s viable from a technology perspective? What’s viable from a business standpoint?’”

The Nissan Intelligent Driving System is both an autonomous car and an electric vehicle, and its interface mixes entertainment with logistics like ETA. 

IDEO also envisions drivers turning into passengers. Getting stuck in traffic will no longer be a waste of time. Instead, “it’s a gateway to productivity,” Stillion says. In IDEO’s “Automobility” presentation, the future car’s interior transforms into a “third space between work and home.” IDEO’s vision includes a workstation with video displays, touchscreen desktop surfaces that can support multiple users and a steering wheel that telescopes into the dash, along with seats that rotate 360 degrees.

What if the car knows who you are? “A connected vehicle will know the context of your day,” Stillion says. Are you heading out on a grocery run? Taking the kids to school? Commuting? Depending on the context, the time of day and whether you synced your calendar to your car, the auto of the future will choose the best route for your needs.

Before that happens, interaction design will have to become much more nuanced, Stillion thinks, as designers account for “the intimacy gradient,” a seamless transition that takes drivers from controlling the car to letting the car become the driver. Stillion points out that as centers of car design migrate from places like Detroit and Stuttgart to Silicon Valley, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are realizing the need to hire dedicated user interface (UI) designers. Stillion predicts that as a new generation of car dashboards accounts for quick interactions, audio and visual inputs that include voice-driven controls, and ambient awareness of traffic conditions, designers’ future skill sets will include best-in-class mobile, the display of densely layered information sets and interaction schemes that shift from manual to autopilot. “Mobile design and app design—these are the touch points that will be integrated into the design of car instrumentation.”

What will the dashboard of the self-driving car look like? Artefact Group thinks it knows. Its recent proof-of-concept video is helping Hyundai map out a path toward semi-autonomous driving. Embedded in the Artefact work are ideas about how a driver will engage with the car and how an interface will assure passengers that the car is safe and adapt to handle both manual and autonomous driving.

Brad Crane, lead designer on the Artefact project, predicts the interface of the future will transition seamlessly from autonomous to manual driving mode and display exactly what the driver needs to see at any given moment. In an elegant, uncluttered piece of functional information design, the Artefact display reveals just the basics: speed, energy efficiency (Artefact believes the car of the future will be electric), range, trip distance and arrival time. Blue highlights indicate when the car is in control.

Artefact Group designed a concept for a minimal dashboard display that keeps drivers’ focus where it should be—on the road. 

Because the onboard sensors in the car can literally see around corners, the windshield display indicates oncoming objects out of the driver’s field of vision and the path the car will take to swerve around oncoming trouble. It’s an ability Crane calls “forecasting.” As the car evades a collision, it will show the driver why it took the action it just did. “It’s just good manners,” explains Crane. 

When it comes to designing the windshield display, Crane takes a less-is-more approach. “You want to display only the essential information. A driver’s eyes should be on the road, not on the display.” In the case of semi-autonomous driving, Crane says, “You want a chatty copilot, not one that overshares.”

As type director at Monotype UK, Nadine Chahine has consulted for a number of carmakers and OEMs as an expert in the legibility and readability of fonts. Designing an interface for a car display, Chahine says, is “a matter of ingredients—they must be the right ones, and they must be used properly.” The recipe includes fonts, size, contrast, resolution, polarity, legibility, functionality, task orientation and user experience.

Although the cars of tomorrow promise an open playing field for interface designers, Chahine designs for the cars of today. “Inter­action with the system while the main task is driving means all your interaction is a distraction from driving,” Chahine says. “This involves attention, risk and speed. When it comes to driver distraction, every interaction with the system means your eyes are taken off the road.”

In its interactive report “The Future of Automobility,” design firm IDEO predicts the future of the car, including its innovative interfaces. This depiction shows how devices might aid drivers in the future by allowing them to drive closely or at a steady distance to diminish traffic.

In her work for Monotype, Chahine tests car dashboard displays in specially designed usability labs that simulate the driving experience. There, she studies how long it takes her subjects to make a “lexical decision”—how long it takes to read a word, then make a choice. You and I call it a glance. And it lasts 250 milliseconds.

Chahine notes, “Your type can be pretty, and it can be delicate, but it cannot be small. You can’t go below a certain size. A change from 3 to 4 millimeters can mean a 25 percent improvement
in readability.”

As far as Chahine is concerned, the best way to judge whether an interface works is functionality. “Is it fast enough?” Chahine asks. In other words, is your design “glanceable”? And the way to discover that is to actually measure the time it takes to complete a task. How long it takes is how well it works, she says.

The design and manufacture of automobiles is anything but fast, easy or trivial. Supply chains are enormous. Timelines are measured in years. When Jason Brush, executive vice president for user experience design at Possible, was asked to work on the interface design of a new car at BMW, the brief was for “an unspecified, open-ended electric vehicle designed for large urban environments.” It took four years, but eventually, BMW Group’s Designworks incorporated the Possible designs into the driver display for the all-electric BMW i3.

The primary concern of the i3’s interior design team, led by Nadya Arnaout, was that the vehicle provide an open, comfortable, living room–like experience. Instead of embedding a display molded in plastic, the i3 screens float on top of the dash. “We made the dash look like a desk,” Brush says. “It feels like furniture.”

“Designing digital for an analog environment is a paradigm shift,” he says. “It influences every choice you make about display inside a vehicle. You have to ask, ‘What is the screen? What information can be grouped together?’ We had to address the scale of the UI and how digital can be integrated into an analog instrument.”

Brush and his team at Possible focused on a driver display that would spotlight the consumption and regeneration of power. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” he says. “Conceptually, we began with the idea of a pendulum that swings from power consumption to power regeneration. We torqued the dial so that on one side, the driver can see the power the regenerative braking system produces. The other side reveals how much energy is consumed. As the needle swings back and forth, the driver can see at a glance how the two are deeply related.”

Patrick Corrigan, founder of Airlift, designs interfaces for Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, BMW, Fiat Chrysler and Nissan. Ask him about the biggest constraints that car UI designers face, and he bursts out laughing: “You mean besides time, money and people?”

First of all, he continues, when he composes himself, “there are hardware suppliers. They can dictate the process. Relationships matter. If they are going to take the time and trouble to source new materials and new products, they’d better like you.”

Then there’s “validation.” Which means, once you define your modes of interaction, you actually have to determine if they work or not. Corrigan sees his job as integrating industrial and digital design so all the pieces harmonize. “At Airlift, we work with clients to discover the experience of cars in the future. If their current problems fall within the context of a car interface, we define the input controls. We begin by asking, ‘What makes sense for that particular car in that particular context? Touch? Eye tracking? Voice? Or gesture?’”

Corrigan is working toward the day when the experience of the interface improves the value of the car. By creating an experience that makes the car an extension of our self, our habits and our context, interface designers can make the car itself something different and better. “There’s huge brand equity for the car company that figures that out,” he says. “But first, we have to question, research and innovate.”

Corrigan believes that in the future, a driver will want to know one fact: “Am I going to arrive on time?”

So what does that leave? Entertainment. Self-driving cars are all about freeing up time, Corrigan thinks. “When your car is your chauffeur, your interface is your concierge.” Drivers of the future will become passengers, watching videos, listening to music, checking their social feeds, reading, maybe getting some work done. Who knows? Maybe one day soon, we’ll look forward to getting stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, you can buy a Mini Cooper today with a heads-up display that rises from the dashboard. It’s not a fighter jet. But it’s close. ca


As Patrick Corrigan works through the challenges of designing for the experience and the environment of a car cockpit, he balances fundamental design principles of clarity and constraint with driver expectations and safety requirements.

In terms of context, you have to figure out where the driver’s eye is, where it needs to be, what the driver is doing at any given point and then, based on those circumstances, the most appropriate input control.

There is a clear information hierarchy when it comes to designing in color for cars. Red means danger, and green means everything is A-OK. Once you negotiate those two choices, when it comes to color, “everything else is just aesthetics.”

Glare and Visibility
Car interface designers have to test for operational ability in full sun and at night. This is one reason most car interface units have hoods, to shroud them from sunlight and improve legibility during daylight hours. “It’s an interior design function,” says Corrigan.

Icon Design
“Restraint” is the watchword when it comes to icons. They should convey information at a quick glance. It’s easy to get carried away here, but Corrigan suggests this is not the time to teach car drivers a new design language. “Keep it simple. Gas. Left and right turn indicators. Sit in your old-school car for a moment and turn the key. The dashboard will light up like a Christmas tree. Most people can’t recognize half the icons displayed, but yet, there they are.”

There are key zones where information should be placed. Historically, warnings—safety, collision detection, fuel, energy consumption and so on—are arranged around the steering wheel in a cluster. “There’s a predetermined dialect and language you have to work with,” Corrigan says.

One of the most crucial decisions that designers must make is selecting between modes of interaction, including touch, gesture, scrolling and voice. Touch interfaces in cars are a matter of heated debate. “Google it,” Corrigan says. “Dozens of scholarly articles will pop up, each explaining why this is a bad idea.” Corrigan predicts the interface of the future will be multimodal, able to adjust based on whether drivers want to throw their car into a hairpin turn on Highway 1 or sit back and be driven through their daily commute.

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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