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On the road to Tactile touch experiences

12 April 2014

Apple’s CarPlay product was made public just as there has been a surge in automotive touchscreen concepts, from Volvo’s entry to an interesting concept from designer Matthaeus Krenn. Both examples are beautiful and yet each has limitations caused by the rush to non-tactile interfaces—non-visual feedback.

In all honesty I haven’t driven a car in a few years and my last experience was with a 90s era vehicle that lacked any screen beyond the windscreen. The following thoughts are based on general observation based on the requirement of the driver needing to stay focused on the road.

Matthaeus has designed a beautiful multi-touch interface which fulfils many of the constraints of having to look at the touchscreen by assigning the most basic tasks to the number of fingers used on the screen regardless of where on the screen. This means eyes are not taken off the road for simple hand eye coordination. While a car isn’t moving, this interface is ingenious, but at that moment the unique UI is less necessary when the driver can look at the screen. However when the car is in motion the visual feedback of changing data could still be a distraction. In my opinion it’s missing another form of feedback (such as audio or haptic feedback), or needs to be directed off the screen.

Volvo showed off its new car UI concept on the auto show circuit and created a good video that asks a lot of questions, some a little too marketing sounding. (“What does temperature look like?”). The interface is touch-centric, requiring not just a hands on approach but one requiring hand eye coordination.

CarPlay was designed for the myriad of car interfaces and manufacturers constraints, some of which use knobs and dials to control the screen. There is still the element of touch which again requires attention on the screen. Traditional automotive knobs and dials give tactile feedback without requiring visual feedback. The original iPods had tactile feedback, and for some functions on the click-wheel audio feedback was given. Such input devices must seem outdated and less-innovative, but for the sake of safety there should be a layer of minimal control, in context, that the driver can control hands-free or through input not requiring sight.

When using computers we’ve become pretty comfortable with using our mouse or trackpad without looking at it, and most of us manage to touch type. Physical controls have their place, your hands have a point of reference when using those devices. In those cases our focus is on the screen and we receive visual feedback there. Automotive input devices should be the same; you don’t need to see the control but do need some non-distracting response. I’m sure we’ll even begin to see touch screens be disabled when the car is in motion.

Traditional automotive controls are quite simple. With few buttons and knobs, the driver learns how to make changes without much more than a glance. I’m sure muscle memory plays a large part as well, as does some immediate feedback (the haptic feedback in a knob being turned, the button being pressed, the obvious change in volume on the stereo or force of air through the vents). We’re now in the position to add more technology to cars affordably and leveraging the computing power already going into cars. Consider voice feedback announcing the change made or heads-up-displays above the steering wheel.

Soon, and hopefully with Carplay and Siri, we’ll be able to control our car systems with voice commands and receive verbal feedback. Our hands can stay on the wheel, regardless of them being at 10 and 2 or another position. I don’t see the trend of adding touch screen in cars diminishing, however they’ll need to find their place. Touch screens are popular now, but I suspect we’ll find better solutions that are more usable (and safe) using a combination of new technology and traditional controls.

Originally drafted and composed over several months on Medium but first published here.