Towards Better Driving Interfaces: Should Automakers Go it Alone?

Cars have changed a great deal over the last decade. Touchscreens, wireless connectivity, electric engines, cameras, and AI continue to transform every aspect of driving. Despite all the progress, though, the way we interact with our cars still leaves a lot to be desired. Voice commands are a hit-and-miss, touchscreen interfaces are laggy, analog and digital inputs get mashed up in a seemingly ad hoc way. The result is often a disjointed and disappointing user experience.

Understandably, to help fix this issue automakers have turned to Silicon Valley. Both established players like Ford, BMW and Honda, but also startups like Rivian and Lucid, have recently begun adopting Google’s Android Automotive OS, an open-source version of Android for cars. Apple’s recently announced update to CarPlay, which offers a promise of a modern GUI that spans the entire user experience, from the gauge cluster to the infotainment system, seems to be gaining traction as well.

But should something so central to the driving experience as the way we interact with our cars be outsourced?

Looking at the smartphone industry, also dominated by Android, doesn’t exactly inspire hope. Android phones often come preloaded with junky apps, software updates arrive late, and the user interface itself is often compromised by questionable design practices made for the sake of differentiation. It’s easy to see why Android Automotive OS might not fare much better in this regard than its smartphone sibling.

While Apple’s updated CarPlay offers a promise of a polished, holistic approach to driving interface design, it will likely be limited to a handful of key features and customization options. The iPhone maker is unlikely to offer its partners in the car industry full control of this system, reserving it for its own electric car project. Automakers who choose that route will always be dependent on Apple, down to every single pixel on the dashboard screens.

The challenge is not just about a modernizing the look and feel of the driving interface, though. It is also about safety. Touchscreens can require a lot of attention from drivers to operate, increasing the risk of accidents. So unlike smartphone interfaces, where engagement often is the goal, driving interfaces must keep the drivers’ gaze off the screens. Other than glancing at the instrument cluster from time to time, drivers shouldn’t be looking at anything else but the road ahead.

Should automakers try their hand at building software platforms on their own, then? Tesla, with its Silicon Valley pedigree, has arguably been at the forefront of this approach. Doing the development in-house allowed Tesla to chart its own course and create the kind of user experience it wants. It is not perfect — its infotainment system heavily relies on nested menus for example — but it shows promise. The cabins of the latest Teslas are free of clutter and their touchscreens are responsive and intuitive to use, by industry standards at least.

To be sure, automakers won’t get good at designing and developing software that drives our cars overnight. It takes talent, resources, and a lot of time. That’s a high bar to clear. So at least in the short run, car companies, already used to working with vast networks of external suppliers and vendors, might be better off partnering with Silicon Valley. But it would be naive to assume that’s going to be enough. Like the old adage says, if you want a thing done well, do it yourself.

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Product designer and occasional writer 🇪🇺🇺🇸

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