For decades, the in-car user experience remained quite static. Advancements in automotive technology centered around the engine and power train, while interior design focused on ergonomics and fit & finish.

Although many traditional HMI elements are still in place, digital transformation is disrupting the industry as automotive technologies are maturing, external technologies are converging on the industry, and design processes are undergoing radical change. Designers are in a unique position to define a whole new user experience, harnessing modern design tools and methodologies.

Digital tools are changing the work of the designer, while also accelerating the entire process. What we design is changing: with digital displays growing in size and prominence, we are shifting from designing “around the screen” to designing “for the screen.” How we design is also changing: in the past, designers relied heavily on physical mockups, whereas today entire cars are designed in the virtual realm, with physical models appearing much later as final validation of the design.

Finally, even for whom we design is changing: traditional market research resulting in one buyer persona ignores the needs of many potential consumers, whereas the trend towards digital content allows designers to serve the individual. As Tero Koivu, our COO and head of products and services, observed, “personalization is largely an under-explored area of automotive UX design; this is a very exciting space, offers the potential to tailor the in-car user experience for a wide variety of individuals.”The automotive industry itself is driving disruptive change from within. Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles will require entirely new interaction designs. Higher levels of ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems), based on new sensors and massive amounts of data, will require new approaches to visualization.

Electric vehicles also require new ways of presenting data, such as range awareness, energy flow, and charging station location, to the driver. These developments introduce many UX opportunities, and several trends from outside the industry are converging to introduce entirely new possibilities to the designer:

  • Advanced tools. With today’s HMI tools, UI changes can be made quickly and visualized immediately. Designers can make and evaluate changes on the fly, making rapid iterations to yield the best result possible.
  • Access to services and apps. For almost any service one can imagine, we could say “there’s an API for that.” To build vs. buy is always a case-by-case decision, but apps and services are available and ready for designers to integrate.
  • Ubiquitous connectivity. 4G is everywhere and 5G is getting closer to reality. The availability of robust, stable connectivity for online services opens new frontiers in what we can design for.
  • Android Automotive. Google is introducing Android Automotive as an embedded operating system for the center stack. The vast Android ecosystem will become a key enabler of future use cases. Android-based applications can be developed exclusively for the automaker, or stock applications can be adapted to fit the car’s visual brand identity.
  • Decreasing cost of hardware. Displays are already appearing in mainstream vehicles, and even mid-tier compute platforms offer enough performance to allow designers to focus what they want to achieve, not on what is possible within hardware performance limitations.

At Rightware, we have been taking advantage of these trends in our own concept development, which has in turn fed the development of our Kanzi product family. The ten-year journey from our first digital cockpit concept presented to Audi in 2008, to our recent collaboration with Qualcomm on their digital cockpit demonstrator at CES 2019, reveals the extent to which technology has removed obstacles and enabled creativity for designers.

Our initial digital cockpit demonstrated use cases which are becoming commonplace today, but which were not available in any production vehicles at the time. This multi-display HMI included context-sensitive navigation on both displays, route guidance and point-of-interest suggestions, phone calls and messaging shown on the screens, etc. More recently, we have demonstrated how easy it is to develop entirely new user experiences.

We showed connectivity technology enabling a smartphone to bring intelligence to a non-connected automotive platform, connecting Google’s speech-to-text cloud API and the IBM Watson API to enable a conversational experience with the vehicle. We have integrated map design and rendering into the primary cluster and IVI user interface tool, enabling creative map visualization. We combined these connectivity and mapping technologies to visualize EV charging station location information and metadata seamlessly within customized maps. All of these demonstrations were built in a matter of days or weeks with current tools. With the arrival of Android Automotive for the center stack, earlier this year we introduced an approach to adding rich graphics to Android while sharing data from apps and services across all screens in the cockpit.

All of these HMI technologies came together in Qualcomm’s digital cockpit demonstrator for CES 2019. This HMI with an ultra-wide digital display brought advanced 3D graphics to the stock Android operating system, integrated cloud services including Amazon Alexa, Music, and Video, shared content seamlessly across multiple operating systems, and included custom visualization of map data from Mapbox. What was only a far-away concept in 2008 could be developed in a matter of months only ten years later.

What does the future automotive UX look like? Today, nobody knows, but Koivu encourages designers to take the lead and define it. “The better designers understand the underlying technologies and services, the better a user experience they can deliver. It is time to be brave, to experiment, and to iterate for the best result. All the pieces are in place. The future is now.”