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German Auto Makers Out of Touch

by Roger Lanctot | Jan 26, 2015

Over the years I have been frequently asked at automotive events why car makers don’t all agree on a single user interface for the car stereo and be done with it. It’s a good question, especially now that it is sometimes almost impossible to FIND the car stereo in some cars.

But the question has changed over the years and the more up-to-date version of the question is: Why don’t car makers give me a place to dock my tablet computer (or other mobile device) in the car and be done with it? This is also a good and logical question.

What lies behind these questions is the fact that user interfaces in cars, for car stereos or whatever is happening in the console/centerstack area, are entering a new phase influenced by regional preferences, new display technologies, government mandates and mobile devices. The bottom line: Touch screens are coming to cars. It just so happens that a large chunk of the German automotive industry is out of touch with this trend.

For years, about 13 to be exact, the German auto industry has operated under the HMI (human machine interface) thrall of BMW’s i-Drive hardware controller. The i-Drive controller – a rotating knob located in the front seat center console – allows the driver to do everything from changing radio stations to entering destinations one character at a time.

Introduced on the BMW 7 Series in 2001, the i-Drive is universally loathed and loved. Most auto enthusiasts despise the i-Drive, while those less than religiously devoted to the art of driving find it amusing and convenient.

BMW is entitled to kudos for cleverness, but it’s time to retire this relic once and for all. The i-Drive and its equivalents have become anachronisms in a post-iPhone world.

Daimler and Audi (and Acura, Infiniti and Lexus) all followed BMW’s i-Drive lead. All of these companies are now faced with a major HMI rethink as hardware controllers are increasingly seen as contributing to eyes-off-road-time rather than mitigating driver distraction.

Touch screens have emerged as the preferred alternative throughout the world, particularly in Asian markets, motivated by the widespread adoption and use of mobile devices with touch screens. Hardware controllers in cars suddenly look about as novel and clever as Atari joysticks.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these devices are awfully clever – and I do mean awfully. Having sat through multiple presentations regarding the efficacy of hardware controllers (and touchpads) I can confirm that it is quite possible for two groups of similarly trained engineers to draw completely different conclusions from the same research. Or it is equally possible for those two groups to conduct their research in such a manner as to produce a predetermined outcome. It happens.

German auto makers have managed to avoid touch screens based on the perception that drivers would need to change their focal length to look at and touch the display. More than one automotive engineer told me that they did not want their customers to smudge the screen with fingerprints.

They certainly could not argue for the lower cost of the touch screen because the hardware controller added both hardware AND software cost to the development of the system. With car makers seeking to rapidly ramp up in-vehicle app integration platforms, hardware controllers are introducing excess cost and complexity.

But the commitment of these German car makers to non-touchable screens dictated that the screens literally be placed beyond the reach of the driver. So these car makers must now yank out the hardware controllers, reconfigure their software and move their displays within reach of the driver. (It may also mean the demise of pop-up or peekaboo displays that appear on vehicle ignition. Yes, that means you Audi et. al.)

So today, in a world increasingly dominated by touch screens, speech and gesture recognition, eye tracking and steering wheel controls, the hardware controller has got to go. It has outlived its usefulness.

Quaint and clever though they may be, hardware controllers are out and touch screens are in. More or less immune from this rethink are North American auto makers which mostly ignored the hardware controller bandwagon. U.S. car makers are hereby rewarded for their slow pace of technology adoption.

Sometimes it’s good to follow slowly – maybe the driver in front of you doesn’t know where he or she is going. Speaking of following slowly, Volkswagen was slow to adopt hardware controllers with the rest of its German industry brethren thereby enabling a more rapid shift to touch displays. The company was the first to break ranks with the joystick crowd. It will be interesting to observe how and when and at what cost the rest of the German auto making community gets in touch with this trend.

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