Henry Ford, Meet Steve Jobs: The Future Of Automated Vehicle Interiors


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Agero, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute Research Points to Era of Much-Needed Change for Automobile Infotainment and Control Systems

DALLAS--Dec. 13, 2012: It's time, in the words of Steve Jobs, to create an "insanely great" automobile interior. The days of knobs, levers and switches are long over; in an era of digital tablets, smartphones and video games, conventional automobile control interfaces seem as antiquated as rumble seats and solid rubber tires.

The impact of today's "consumerized" digital devices has forever changed how people interact with the equipment around them. Simply put, we humans have evolved. Rightly or wrongly, in the last decade we've increased our expectations regarding the volume and quality of information we feel qualified to handle at any given time. And we expect our world of mechanical and electronic devices to keep up with us.

Trouble is, cars are not smartphones. In the end, we must still pilot our cars safely from one destination to the next, at high speeds and through sometimes perilous conditions, all without harming people and property both inside and outside the vehicle. This unique and highly consequential activity requires new thinking and new solutions.

"At Agero we're striving to create a new cognitive model for automotive interiors that will incorporate the very best of all the various interactive methods," said Dr. Tom Schalk, vice president of Voice Technology for Agero, a major provider of connected vehicle services. "Rather than trying to force people to regress, it's time to 'right-think' the ways in which we behave inside our automobiles."

A key aspect of rethinking the interaction between cars and people, known in design circles as the automotive Human-Machine Interface, or HMI, is to realize that not all tasks are created equally. Safe methods for quickly obtaining accurate road condition or navigation information, for example, require a significantly different mix of voice, visual and touchscreen options than, say, exploring music choices while on a long journey. Driver and passengers matter as well; a 68-year-old's expectations about the in-vehicle environment is probably incompatible with those of a 22-year-old.

Agero's recent research into the evolving automotive HMI has led it to some insightful conclusions. The company recently initiated a project with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) to research optimal methods for completing several "secondary" in-vehicle tasks, such as those involving infotainment systems.

In the study, two groups of drivers--18- to 30-year-olds and 65- to 75-year-olds--were tested in their levels of distraction while driving on the Virginia Smart Road, a 2.2 mile long, closed test track in Blacksburg, Virginia. Participants were asked to complete selected tasks on a conventional portable navigation device as well as on specially designed devices featuring interactive speech and speech/display screen capabilities. The results were instructive.

"Across all key measurements--driving performance, ease of use, workload demand and task execution, defined as the successful retrieval and selection of information--both the speech-only and speech-and-visual interfaces reduced distractions," noted Schalk. "The measurements also indicate a speech-only driver interface is best for entering a destination to search for, while a combination of speech and visual cues is best for selecting a particular search result from a list."

The Agero/VTTI study also uncovered another important fact: speech/visual, as well as speech-only interfaces, received better marks in terms of the drivers' perceived mental demand, frustration level and situational awareness. In other words, when using a navigation device, a combination of speech and visual cues, followed by speech-only, are the most intuitive ways for drivers to request, obtain and sort real-time information about destinations and routes. By contrast, conventional navigation devices that require touchscreen interaction fared poorly.

Schalk emphasizes that a great deal of intensive study, as well as creative thinking and additional new technologies, will be required before we can say we've truly arrived at the 21st Century automotive interior. But his company is focused on finding solutions.

"We believe that speech, manual touch, gesture, visual including heads-up displays, sound and haptic feedback are all necessary in various combinations for different tasks. Simple voice dialing can be done with speech and sound. But we can't expect a one-size-fits-all solution," he states. "Thanks to the digital revolution, the world is moving extremely fast at the moment in terms of how people execute routine tasks. It's critical that we, as an industry, not only keep up, but get out in front of this amazing development that is redefining our age."

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