Car UI – Concepts Analyzed

A user interface is extremely important because it is, in essence, the direct way every user interacts with a device. Its design can make the crucial difference between a successful product and a failed one. In the process of creation used for any vehicle, the user interface must be factored into the design. Without a clear and thoughtfully incorporated UI, the notion of the entire driving experience can be damaged by an inadequate user interface. The incorporation of a confusing or visually overwhelming UI is not just an unpleasant detail; it is a feature that shapes the way a user feels about a certain car every time it is used. There is no getting around a car UI, and this is the reason it is extremely important to produce a solution that will improve the driving experience, and not degrade it.

As more advanced technology starts to influence every aspect of life, UI is entering a new chapter of their evolution. Until the beginning of this century, almost the entire notion of car UI was based around buttons, knobs, dials and potentiometer. Now, informational technologies dictate the development of any user interface, and cars are no exception.

Thanks to the ability to link any device to the Internet or the Global Positioning Network, these interfaces now hold the possibility of becoming seemingly infinitely more usable by any driver. Apart from regular data feeds that include speed, the state of the engine or its current performance, once basic systems check for a vehicle now can include information that enhances the experience of driving, an active memory log that can produce a driver’s road behavior profile and many other things that were unimaginable just two decades ago.


Car UI concept designs are changing rapidly because of these new possibilities, and many individuals, teams and companies are racing to produce the next big thing in the field of user interface. Now, the mission is not to simply include a touchscreen in the dashboard layout. Instead, many are looking to offer additional and completely new experience for the users. By pursuing these new options, a few ideas stand apart from the crowd, and promise one or more features that will possibly introduce a valuable step forward. 

A New Car UI Concept

Currently, many car user interface designers seem fascinated with touchscreens, but at the same time do not know how to incorporate them properly. They include small buttons that are hard to use, clogged interface and other miniscule problems that add up to a less than friendly car UI. Old designer habits are partly to blame for this phenomenon. Engineers are using the touch screen as if it is just another regular user interface with physical buttons.

Instead of using its advantages, the car makers are actually jamming the new concept into the previous design. Mattaeus Krenn, a designer from San Francisco, proposes a different solution. His prototype, A New Car UI, takes a page out of the mobile devices engineering handbook and proposes a clear initial screen, free of any control functions. When the screen is touched, it comes alive with a single big control element that can be used for anything, from the on-board stereo to the headlights.

It recognizes many hand gestures on its surface, and does not require precise movement or positioning, so that the drive does not have to look at the display, and instead can focus on the road. Many accidents are caused by the drivers who stop to look through their windshield and fiddle around with the controls. In the case of the New Car UI, the idea is that drivers begin to learn the commands, not by sight, but by muscle memory. Controls can be further customized by the users themselves, and new functions added at any moment. This concept is still in the prototype phase, but it definitely shows promise when it comes to the next generation of car touch screens.

New GM UI Concept

General Motors are a staple of innovative design in the USA, but has an equally strong rating in other countries in the world. Gael Buzyn, one of the leading designers in the company recently presented his new concept of a car user interface (http://work.gmunk.com/GM-Concept-UI). He stated that his team goal was to recreate the entire notion of a car UI, starting from the smallest element and building up all the way to the entire system. This GM framework includes an AR (Augmented Reality) view option and a 3D mapping process. There is no doubt that Buzyn had a futuristic vision, and he did not hold back on this concept.

The proposed driver console is fitted into the rest of the car elegantly, almost in an organic fashion. Here, two dials in the form of a circle are the main control element, and the circle is the key design characteristic in a broader design that seems like it features many edges and straight lines. Augmented Reality is a technology that aims to visually enhance the users surrounding by inputting data over the physical reality. In GM UI, this option is integrated and offers the user the ability to get many kinds of information projected on the windshield itself.

By using this feature, any future user could see the trajectory of its car not on a small GPS screen, but on the glass itself. Also, the 3D mapping process will propel this notion to an even more impressive level by presenting terrain topography in three dimensions. Looking at this concept GM framework, especially the AR features, it is clear that the company is more than serious about taking its car UI to the next level.

Self-Driving Vehicles and UI Design

The biggest and most interesting field of future car UI is the notion of the absent human driver. Google is very seriously developing its driverless cars, which are operated by an onboard computer (http://singularityhub.com/2014/05/13/google-self-driving-cars-are-learning-to-navigate-the-urban-jungle/). Currently, these prototypes are composing their software decision making structure by being tested in the urban environment, and Google has still a long way to go before these vehicles are put on the real streets.

But, their mission will be completed someday, and this will mark a big shift in any car UI design. Instead of trying to evolve the current setup, Google is developing user interfaces which will be located on mobile devices in the form of applications. These programs will then link up with the car’s core software system and send any user commands wirelessly to the car. In this scenario, Google could open its doors to any software development company and allow them to produce competing UI apps. Future users will have the luxury to choose those which suit them, equating them to other mobile based software utilities. Their individual design will include many variations of the user interface, but they will all be made on the same core software platform that will be able to communicate with the vehicle. But, the idea of displacing the vehicle UI out of the car itself could be a true game changer.

Developing the Future UI

In any case, the days of physical user interface systems are long gone. Now, technologies like remote control driving, augmented reality displays and touch screen controls are slowly taking their place in the future user interface concepts. Many more IT solutions will surely become available to UI designers in the following months and years. As these concepts turn into reality, it is certain that a mix of all these ideas will produce the new generation of car UI.

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Megan Wilson
Megan Wilson is user experience specialist & editor of UX Motel. She is also the Quality Assurance and UX Specialist at WalkMe Megan.w(at)walkme.com
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