Carmakers take a hint from tablets

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Published: January 3, 2015 1:48:01 AM

Reaching an apogee of confusion, car dashboards have become a bewildering array of screens, buttons and knobs to control functions like the...

Reaching an apogee of confusion, car dashboards have become a bewildering array of screens, buttons and knobs to control functions like the radio, ventilation, advanced safety systems and internet services. Looking to simplify such cockpitlike controls, automakers are starting to take design cues from a familiar household device, the tablet computer.

Ford, for example, announced last month that it would adopt a new touch-screen, table-like system to replace its much-criticised connected-car designs. It’s a reflection of the radical transformation of vehicles as automakers wrestle with how to integrate smartphones and online services into cars without increasing driver distraction.

“We looked at what aspects of tablets made sense,” said Don Butler, Ford’s executive director for connected vehicles and services, referring to the Sync 3, the next generation of the company’s in-dash system, which will appear in models this year.

It’s a marked shift for Ford, whose seven-year partnership with Microsoft produced several systems that were often criticised for being too complex and baulky. The new system will be based on software from QNX Software Systems, a Canadian company with extensive experience in the automotive industry. Even though QNX is owned by BlackBerry, Ford took its inspiration for Sync 3 not from the parent company’s smartphones but from Apple’s iPad.

Based on an eight-inch touch-screen, Sync 3 uses fewer and larger icons that can be recognised at a glance. The touch-sensitive areas are bigger, and drivers can use more than one finger at a time, allowing for gestures like pinching to zoom in on a map. A bar along the bottom of the screen always displays primary functions like climate control, navigation and audio. But moves that may be convenient for a tablet user lying on a couch can be deadly for drivers.

Tesla Model S owners, for example, can view a reverse camera angle of the car while driving forward, as well as view other information, all of it illuminated on a vast 17-inch touch screen.

“But the bigger size is better because it means the buttons can be larger,” said Todd Lockwood, a Model S owner. He said he could adjust braking and suspension settings while driving, which is easier on the big screen.

Conversely, Cadillac has been criticised for its iPad-like CUE system, which has a touch-sensitive slider to adjust the volume. Ford endured similar disdain from many drivers over a touch-sensitive volume button in some MyLincoln Touch systems.

To Ford, the message was clear: The volume knob stays. Mr Butler said that Ford was sensitive to the problem of driver distraction. So some gestures common in tablets and smartphones are not migrating to the dashboard. “When you scroll through a list, the list continues to roll normally on a tablet, but that inertial spinning is not ideal for a vehicle environment,” Mr Butler said. That move will not be in Sync 3 so that drivers do not become mesmerised spinning playlists, for example.

One of the most anticipated new touch-screen systems is coming from Volvo, which has made safety one of its biggest selling points. The centrepiece of its new XC90 SUV, coming early this year, is a new connected-car system that has a nine-inch touch screen. “Everybody’s used to touch screens,” said Thomas Müller, Volvo’s vice-president for electrical and electronic systems engineering. “You see them in modern kitchens; simple laptops come with a touch-screen. It’s become mainstream and a normal thing to do.” As a result, there will be only eight buttons in the

Volvo system, including what the industry calls hard controls for front and rear defrost, skip track, pause and a mandatory hazard warning light switch. Mr Müller argues that because consumers are so accustomed to touch interfaces, it’s the safest design for connected-car systems.

Many automakers are clearly on a tablet track. What’s less clear is how they will work with the companies behind those tablets. Nearly every car manufacturer insists it is working closely with Apple and Google, each of which will be promoting its own software—CarPlay and Android Auto—this year.

While that happens, the tablet revolution rolls on.

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