There’s no halting the rapid push toward driverless cars—once the technology is matured, autonomous vehicles (AVs) will likely make the roads safer and better for the environment. But without the act of driving, what will connect the user to the brand? Typically, one of the key differentiators between car brands, separating a Fiat from a BMW, is the feel and interior. The sound the engine makes, the haptic response when the key switches the ignition, the tactile material and feel of the wheel—each factor garners a response from the driver which reinforces their choice. It’s visceral branding.
However, this poses a potential problem for car manufacturers: automation brings standardisation and the potential for important in-vehicle touchpoints to be lost. To prepare for this potentiality, brands should look toward implementing digital HMIs (human-machine interfaces) and other visual or screen-based experience points that can help provide that same distinction for customers.
The autonomous car offers digital experiences akin to the Sci-Fi world of cinema and we’re approaching a time where the fictional visions of the future are converging with reality—both in terms of technology and expertise required to drive it.
The importance of a USP in car manufacturing
While the outer shell will never cease to attract buyers, the ultimate differentiator that matters most is the experience. General Motors, for example, employs a team of sound engineers, architects and musicians to craft every audible feature in its cars. From the sound made by the car door to the tick of the indicator, each acoustic element is mapped uniquely.
Audi and other major car manufacturers implement the same level of audible detail, ensuring their brand identity becomes a multi-faceted experience that’s clearly defined. The experience for the driver is far more than the logo and brand colours. This also feeds into the materials used and the haptic feedback felt by drivers as they interact with the car’s controls. All sensory experiences are consistent across models while remaining distinct from competitors.
With digital UI, you don’t need to change the physical space to transform the feel
Currently, interior design and in-car experiences are shifting towards HMI and digital connectivity. Cars are inheriting many of the same features as smartphones, removing the need for separate controls and devices. This allows a seamless transition between home and car. Asahi Kasei Europe’s survey from 2020 reaffirmed this growing trend, with 56.9% of respondents stating connectivity features as an essential part of their next car purchase. In addition, 72.7% agreed that HMIs should be intuitive, including voice and touch screen control.
As we enter the era of AVs these details will become more essential for car manufacturers, with passengers relinquished from driving entirely. The challenge comes in navigating a world where the experience of driving is removed entirely. Manufacturers need to entirely reimagine the car experience.
The HMI of the autonomous era
To start with, it’s important to answer the question: what exactly is the user experience? One could argue it is essentially a memory. One approach to measuring the effectiveness of an experience is by its memorability and whether the passenger feels a connection post-use. This also circles back to the importance of brand distinction and a passenger’s brand association.
An area that is being worked on currently is real-time visualisation. The idea is to provide customers with the autonomous car’s vision, so to speak, and provide data on the location, speed and direction of the car. This reassures the passenger by keeping them updated on the journey’s progress. An example is the screens found in Waymo’s AVs.
However, once a foundational level of trust has been established with AVs, the attention of passengers will be freed up entirely. Due to the novel environment of the car, the age-old, rectangular screen needn’t be the only form from which to consume media. In fact, screens can be inserted into the dashboard, seats and even as heads-up displays as part of the windscreen or windows. The latter is particularly interesting not only because it takes advantage of the car’s unique build but also because the technology was originally designed for pilot safety, using a display that doesn’t encroach or distract.
This same technology can display messages and video for entertainment purposes, it could even be used to generate augmented reality (AR) experiences built as an overlay to the outside world. It may also hold the key to the problem of the kind of motion sickness that is often induced by having screen-based entertainment in moving vehicles. If designed correctly, the forms of media and entertainment available inside the car can be better suited to the different forms of screen technology and as such, merge more seamlessly with the physical experience.
Not only will these experiences become tailored to the form of travel, they will not always be centred around the active consumption of media. For example, automated travel will lay open the opportunity for sleep, mindfulness and work as a possible in-transit activity. The lighting and use of screen technology can reflect this, generating an entirely different mood depending on choice. With digital UI, you don’t need to change the physical space to transform the feel.
However, the problem still remains—how can automotive brands ensure these experiences are distinct from one another?
Creatives are the key to unique experiences
Some of the interior possibilities discussed in this article are reminiscent of cinema, the Sci-Fi or spy tech seen in James Bond’s Aston Martin or the Batmobile. There’s a good reason for this: the artists creating these fictional technologies can design them in the real world too. If automotive companies want to differentiate themselves from other automated car brands, they should look no further than the memorable UI depicted in cinema.
This is for two key reasons.
Firstly, it comes down to technology. The motion graphics and entertainment industries are witnessing a shift from post-production to real-time production using video game engines. These engines allow artists to generate 3D graphics on film sets, and in real-time using screens or running a feed in-camera. Typically, all motion graphics are added after the filming is complete. Using this same technology, we’re very close to achieving complex, real-time interactive UI—the exact technology needed for the futuristic, in-car experiences described. In fact, it’s already possible to manipulate real-time, 3D motion design on-set today using the Unreal Engine.
Secondly, the reason the futurist UI designs in cinema feel so memorable is because they are both unique and tangible to the world within which they exist. The artists don’t simply come up with the most futuristic or interesting setup based on their own opinions—hours are spent with the director to build concepts that reflect both the world and the driver’s aesthetic. Take, for example, the Spinner vehicle in Blade Runner 2049 . The world is a dystopic, worn out, yet high-tech future. Ryan Gosling’s dashboard reflects this, displaying futuristic communication and navigation technology while operating within a UI design system that feels achievable today. It doesn’t stand out from the narrative.
If we compare a film’s unique aesthetic to a brand’s USP, we begin to realise the value this sector can offer. Motion Graphics studios can weave a brand’s narrative neatly into a UI design. Cinematic motion graphics can tell a thousand words and make a film truly memorable. In fact, it could be argued that the presentation of automated vehicles in cinema has directly influenced the real world’s conception of this technology – a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Differentiation boils down to what each car company is offering specifically in terms of experience. The technical prowess of a German vehicle, the level of tweaking and customisation from Japan, or the minimalist atmosphere of Scandinavia: these are examples of clear brand identities. Likewise, the ethos of the brand, does it emphasise safety or is it built for prestige? Artists can turn these identities into designs that express individual brand narratives.
Motion graphics artists and FUI (Fictional User Interface) designers have been immersed in the future of automotive for decades and if the world’s biggest manufacturers want to stake their claim, they may need to tap into their creative expertise.
About the author: Anthony Pond is UX Director at Territory Studio