COMMENT: Are screens losing their touch?

BY RUTH DAWSON. Just a few short years ago, touchscreens were heralded as being the best way to deploy connectivity in car. Emulating the smartphones and tablets consumers are now so well accustomed to, dashboard touchscreens deployed connected car functions seamlessly - or so marketing teams would have led us to believe.

Just a few short years ago, touchscreens were heralded as being the best way to deploy connectivity in car. Emulating the smartphones and tablets consumers are now so well accustomed to, dashboard touchscreens deployed connected car functions seamlessly – or so marketing teams would have led us to believe.

Fast forward to 2013 and the automotive industry’s love affair with flush touch sensitive surfaces is starting to cool. Although touch- screens may be deployed on ever more tech outside of the car, the latest round of connected vehicle developments has seen some OEMs and suppliers go back to basics, with buttons and dials in place of a flat surface.

Apple recently teased the industry with a fragment of insight into its vision for iOS in the car. An application lodged with the US Patent and Trademark Office revealed that, rather than the single button and flat screen combination seen on other Apple tablets and smartphones, the company’s Digital Dash has textured ‘buttons’ moulded into the touchscreen.The system has been designed so that it will have “raised ridges, indents or other tactile properties to facilitate operation without diverting attention away from the road”.

Ford, meanwhile, has announced that it will be combining more traditional buttons and knobs with a touchscreen interface for its next generation of connected cars. Somewhat confusingly, the OEM cites the touchscreen as the reason why half of its customers choose to buy the system – so why the step backwards?

NHTSA’s phased voluntary guidelines aim to keep the driver’s eyes off the road for no more than two seconds at a time, twelve seconds in total. A reasonable request one might think when it comes to tactile surfaces

Once again the switch flip is largely a result of distracted driver regulation: NHTSA’s phased voluntary guidelines aim to keep the driver’s eyes off the road for no more than two seconds at a time, twelve seconds in total. A reasonable request one might think when it comes to tactile surfaces, but almost impossible to obey when a driver is expected to navigate a flat touchscreen system with various menus and options.

However, in Ford’s case at least, there is another dimension to this decision, other than gaining a business edge: part of the ongoing criticism levelled at the OEM’s MyFord Touch system focuses on the interface itself. The other 50% of Ford’s customers, it appears, are deeply unhappy with the touchscreen.

Jack Nerad, Executive Editorial Director at Kelly Brook Blue, commented to USA Today that it is better to stick to what consumers know best, saying that Ford’s decision to get rid of buttons entirely “may have been a bit overkill”. Consumer Reports has furthermore labelled the interface “distracting”, the fundamental design as “flawed” and the flush, touch-sensitive buttons as “maddeningly fussy and…hard to distinguish.”

Frost & Sullivan has taken a more diplomatic line, stating that “OEMs are finding it hard to balance out an offering which provides the latest and greatest features but also assures safety… clearly proving that full touch experience is not yet automotive ready.”

Johann Jungwirth, Chief Executive of R&D at Mercedes-Benz North America, said that he believed the future of HMI would be a blend of voice, touch and buttons

But many OEMs are still keen to figure out the role of touchscreen in the future connected car. Speaking to Autoline, Johann Jungwirth, Chief Executive of R&D at Mercedes-Benz North America, said that he believed the future of HMI would be a blend of voice, touch and buttons. To Jungwirth it “doesn’t make sense” to incorporate a touchscreen solution into mid-size or larger cars where the centre of the dash is further away from the driver. A more comfortable solution in this scenario would be to use a console or voice, gesture or gaze control.

“It’s not [one] size fits all,” Jungwirth said.“It’s really about creating what’s natural.”

The realisation that screens may have lost their touch could not have come soon enough – but whether it will work in Ford or Apple’s favour in the short term is another matter. The initial draw of touchscreen tech at the dealership may prove too much of a flash to ignore for buyers, with some already viewing Ford’s move back to buttons as a retreat to the dark ages.

But what of the future? At this year’s CES in Las Vegas, Tactus Technology unveiled a flat touchscreen which could rise into a keypad on demand. Ideas like this could bridge the gap between a sleek dashboard and consumer preference.Whether OEMs will be willing to embrace it, however, is another story.


Download your free copy of Megatrends magazine Q3 2013This article was first published in the Q3 issue of Megatrends magazine, to continue reading, simply download your free copy now.

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Ruth Dawson is Publications Editor, Automotive World.

The AutomotiveWorld.com Comment column is open to automotive industry decision makers and influencers. If you would like to contribute a Comment article, please contact editorial@automotiveworld.com.

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