The auto sector has a problem. It’s not just difficulties with the global supply chain or the cost-of-living crisis impacting on consumer confidence. According to S&P Global Mobility loyalty data, automaker brand loyalty also dropped to 49.5% in June this year; that’s the lowest since September 2014.
It in part explains why OEMs are taking ever greater strides to make their offerings stand out from rival brands. In some cases, this means deploying the latest technology to try and captivate potential buyers. Nowhere is this more obvious than with in-vehicle infotainment (IVI).
Five years ago, many autos featured a small center stack touchscreen. However, this traditional layout is already being superseded by larger screens. According to IHS Market, 7-to-8-inch screens made up nearly 80% of IVIs screens in 2019. This has dropped to 65% in 2022 as larger screen sizes become increasingly popular.
Screens for everyone
Many auto makers are also adopting a multi-screen approach to deliver core functionality, introducing digital instrument clusters, bigger center-stack touchscreens and even displays for front seat passengers. However, there are growing concerns that a greater emphasis on touchscreens could actually pose a risk to driver safety, instead of enhancing it.
According to the UK’s IAM RoadSmart, “the latest in-vehicle infotainment systems impair reactions times behind the wheel more than alcohol and cannabis use.” For instance, its research reveals some drivers take their eyes off the road for up to 16 seconds to operate touch controls, making reaction times worse than texting while driving. And that could be catastrophic – taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds doubles the chances of a crash, says the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Harming, not enhancing, controls
Now factor in the trend of removing hard buttons from cockpits entirely. Instead of relying on muscle memory and ‘feeling’ for the right button – while maintaining concentration on the road ahead – drivers are increasingly expected to navigate through different screens and submenus to access functions. This means constantly looking from the road to the screen, and back again, all while trying to ensure that wavering fingertip hits the exact right onscreen button.
Such a counterintuitive process is increasingly required for carrying out even the most basic of functions too, from heating and stereo volumes to windscreen wipers, even gear selection. On top of that, what happens if and when that screen goes black, decides to lock up – or simply fails?
Testing attentions, challenging safety
Combined, these issues represent a possible threat to drivers, and one that safety specialists want to address formally. For instance, the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory is calling for infotainment systems to undergo ‘attention testing’.
The organization explains: “By developing attention standards or guidance that manufacturers and software developers can follow when developing in-vehicle technologies and interactive elements, we can encourage a structured approach to assessing interface design. Akin to Euro NCAP standards for vehicle design, this would encourage the development of safer systems and improved HMI (Human Machine Interface).”
Striking the right balance: Simplify to modernize
As a pioneering IVI developer, NNG agrees that a more measured approach to infotainment design is vital. We believe industry players should keep IVI designs simple and intuitive by committing to the following design principles:
• IVIs are bright, sharp and easy to use, requiring minimal time to be ‘learnt’ by drivers; this will ensure an IVI’s operation becomes second nature quickly instead of becoming a potential source of regular distraction.
• IVIs should not be overpacked with functionality that is trivial to driving experiences and act as an unnecessary distraction or worse still, buries basic functionality in submenus that requires multiple taps to access.
• IVIs should only ever replace physical controls for air conditioning, seat heating, etc. when there is a logical, UX-led reason for doing so – instead of slavishly following what are perceived to be the latest consumer wants (or industry cost-saving practices).
• IVIs must achieve greater parity with mobile devices, offering similar fast performance (with zero lag or stuttering) and capable voice recognition systems able to match the capabilities of Google Assistant or Apple’s Siri. A failure to do so will see poor consumer feedback about current in-car voice controls growing ever louder.
By committing to a ‘form-follows-function’ design ethos, auto makers can still wow potential buyers with the latest digital-first experiences – but without the inherent risks that are becoming embedded in some modern solutions. Ultimately, as with pioneering safety features such as ABS and airbag technology, the primary role of IVIs must be to help drivers stay focused on the road ahead, protecting their lives and those around them. All other considerations should and must come second.