Voice commands are getting more legible, more dependable and more important.
In-car touchscreens have been getting bigger and more important over the years. And with more and more systems getting moved into them, I’ve been looking forward to seeing a jump in quality. Better looking, more attractive menus, home screens that are neater, cleaner, and more intuitive to use, and systems that need the least amount of attention.
This, unfortunately, hasn’t been happening. Quite the opposite. With more functionality, there’s now more clutter. There are more hidden menus, features are often difficult to find, and at times even pulling over and taking a good look doesn’t get you far.
Case in point, the Maybach GLS 600, where on a recent drive, I just couldn’t find how to switch off the Heads Up Display. I tried menu after menu and location after location, but I just couldn’t find it. After a bit I just gave up. Then in frustration I tried the voice prompt. “Hey Mercedes... switch off the Heads Up Display,” I called. And then, to my surprise, back came the reply, “Switching Heads Up Display off”. It worked! I was elated, and I was driving at the time.
The problem of complexity is something designers of fighter aircraft cockpits have been struggling with for years. Earlier plagued by too many ‘steam gauges’ or a vast array of dials, today it is problems associated with the ‘glass cockpit’ and too much information coming at you all at the same time. And imagine having to hit a touchscreen accurately while flying upside down, all the while keeping your eye on an adversary. Is it any wonder that fighter jocks got Heads Up Displays first? And they’ve got another system – HOTAS (Hands On Throttle and Stick), that’s a bit like a modern-day Ferrari steering wheel, where all the buttons and knobs are placed right on the wheel, so you don’t need to take your hands off.
There are other things designers of automotive displays can learn from the flyboys. Step number one is de-clutter. Then, it’s essential to have a well-structured and intuitive menu system, where it’s easy to find stuff. And finally, voice commands can prove invaluable once quality levels improve.
In fact, using Apple’s Siri is now both the easiest and safest way to make a phone call from your car. And doing this with Google or Alexa is just as easy. Apple’s CarPlay, however, stands out as the best thought out, cleanest, clearest automotive screen-based interface yet. The large icons and big fonts mean you seldom aim and miss on the move, the menu is clear and easy to navigate, and Apple has even built safety systems into many of its features. Can’t wait to experience the upgraded CarPlay that’s just around the corner. And isn’t it time car makers got their act together and created some well thought-out interfaces of their own? Audi and VW make some of the best, but there’s still a long way to go.
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