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Despite Advanced Assistance, Automotive UI Must Prioritize Driver Safety More Than Ever

For those following developments in driver assistance, it has become clear that we are nearing a milestone.

This transition is due to revolutionize our love affair with cars.

Naturally, there are those who deny the possibility of self-driving cars or are staunch advocates for the unadulterated thrill of driving. Some of these traditionalists look down upon automatic transmissions and stability control as crutches for inferior driver skill. On the other side of the spectrum are the futurists obsessed with seeing their dreams of true autopilot realized. Where do you stand?

It’s a trick question. Those on both ends of the discussion fail to realize that the progress and mass adoption of automobiles has followed a path paved by driver assistance.



In our excitement to embrace the truly autonomous vehicle, we must not overlook development of the cars that come between. Significant constraints still lie in the way of the autonomous car; legal, technical, and infrastructural hurdles have yet to be solved.

Most concerning of the various constraints is the tendency for driver error, which may be magnified by driver assistance technology. Increasing reliance on assistance systems means paying attention to hazardous conditions becomes a secondary consideration to the comfort of the driver. Many have written with obvious excitement and curiousity, lamenting the end of the driver as passengers adopt a sedentary role. Active imaginations explore the possibility of a mobile office, sleeping chamber, or the sudden departure from the definition of a ‘car’.

This conveniently overlooks the dangerous present period where driver assistance is being perfected and human error is amplified by a false sense of security.

Now more than ever, a car’s interface needs to prioritize safety behind the wheel.

The technologies that make driving enjoyable and (comparably) safe in the present day are not about to disappear. Driving is not about to disappear.

While technologists dream of the day their children don’t need to earn a driver’s license, enthusiasts should be optimistic for the advancements to the way they interact with their cars.

Statistics show a stunted interest in driving among younger generations, but the potential use for augmented reality technologies in driver training are significant. Augmented reality may just be the solution to the safety hurdle. Imagine if the windshield could display overlaid elements that draw drivers’ attention to hazards or roadsigns. Imagine technology capable of detecting and indicating oncoming vehicles obscured such as by blind corners or crests.

Even if the car isn’t yet capable of reacting to all types of hazards on the road, we can still benefit from systems that inform driver reactions.

Innovative Control Potential

Before we start developing new systems, we have a great opportunity now to revisit present technologies and explore improvements. For example, touch-screen displays for systems used while driving have got to go. The natural, objective superiority of tangible controls cannot be disputed in terms of driver safety. Some novel ideas have been suggested that incorporate gestures, which allow for less precise (and theoretically distracting) manipulation. One such concept differentiates controls based on multitouch interaction; swipes with different finger combinations trigger different systems. In theory, a driver could keep their eyes on the road and swipe their fingers across an interface to operate the climate controls without needing to look for a certain touch-point or button.

The problem here is that multitouch is not intuitive. Who decides on the finger combinations or movement patterns? Are these consistent in all vehicles? There are other questions that need answers, but ultimately, the learning curve, inconsistencies, and the potential for frustration outweigh the benefit.

Touch-screen controls suit certain functions well – I can’t stand the thought of using Maps with a joystick – but we ought to focus on the development of best practices for objectively better interface controls like tangible buttons, analog sticks, handles, switches, dials, and the like. These are safer, feel more natural, and contribute to driver alertness.

The touch-screen combines display and controller in the same way that all-season tires combine features for winter and summer driving: instead of a tailored product, you get a half-baked compromise. So why don’t we focus on developing intuitive, tangible controls and separate high-quality displays?

Tuner/Developer Culture Clash

As a final thought for this post, consider the effect of a collision between tuner and developer subcultures. What will the ultra-modified interiors of their performance cars look like? The last decade’s fixation seems to be on sardining umpteen displays and subwoofers; when these tinkerers get their hands on advanced display technology, watch out!

Let’s hope that advocates will protect the rights of tinkerers who want to modify their cars. Already, DRM casts a dark shadow over automobile software, and there is potential for this to become an encumbrance as our cars come to rely more on their software.

Proprietary models that appeal to popular audiences are undoubtably on their way from the likes of Apple and competitors with similar target demographics. But these need not come at the cost of our ability to modify and tinker with our cars. I’m not alone in fearing the nightmare of being forced into a car developed for the iPad-toting, chainmail-forwarding soccer mom who “just doesn’t get computers”.

Until that future comes to pass, we’re living in a golden age of driver freedom.