Telematics and digital displays: The case for context-aware HMIs

With the proliferation of infotainment services coming into the car's embedded system or via a connected smartphone, tablet or other device, human-machine interface (HMI) designers need to take a Rolling Stones approach: "Driver, you can't always get what you want, but you can get what you need." That is, you want to listen to your favorite song, but in these driving conditions, you need to keep your attention on your speed.

"How to access that information easily is of prime importance," says Chris Schreiner, director of the user experience practice at Strategy Analytics, USA. "We see this problem already, with the iPod, navigation system, phone satellite radio, all competing for the display. How can users quickly, easily and safely get to the information they want?"

Menu or buttons? Touch screen or steering wheel controls? How about voice recognition? There are plenty of solutions already on the road that aim to let drivers sort through apps and information while keeping eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. (For more on voice recognition, see Telematics and speech recognition: Finally ready for prime time?

Another intriguing approach is showing up in labs: context-aware displays that could solve info overload by only surfacing information that's needed. This approach is widely used on smartphones, Schreiner points out, where HMI designers save screen real estate by using predictive technology that attempts to figure out what the user wants to do and enabling those controls. The key, he says, is "to be able to predict what the user is going to want to see, not from the perspective of an engineer designing it but from the driver's perspective. That is an option that could work. But that's way, way out in the future."

Inside the lab

In Volkswagen Group of America's Silicon Valley Electronic Research Laboratory, industrial designer Maria Mejia has a demonstration model of a display with overlays that change to show relevant information. Her colleague, Erik Glaser, is designing a trackball control with haptics that change depending on what kind of menu you are using. For example, its movement would be constrained to left-and-right when accessing a menu that scrolls from left to right. When used for a vertical menu, the trackball would only move up and down.

Ford's vision for its next generation of cars includes a digital HMI that could eliminate extraneous indicators when driving under higher-performance conditions. The car might also take into consideration the driver's physical state. Ford already has a test car on the road in Europe that has heart rate monitors embedded in the seat, according to Rainer Vogt, team leader at Ford Research & Advanced Engineering, Europe. A production version is at least ten years away, he thinks.

Usability rules

The monitors can determine the driver's stress level and workload, so that the HMI and also the car's performance could adapt. For example, while driving at low and steady speeds, the driver could have access to full voice commands to send and listen to texts or emails; in stop-and-start conditions, texting could be suppressed. When the driver turns onto an exciting, winding road, as her heart rate goes up, most HMI displays would disappear and, if she seemed to be reaching her workload capacity, the car's speed might be throttled.

Vogt thinks such a system would need to prompt the driver to accept or refuse any changes, rather than wresting the decision away from her. How this messaging is presented could be important—and depend on the culture. In the United States, where individual independence is valued, the car might ask, before it cut the throttle, ‘Do you want to enable high-performance mode?’ even as it cut performance to match the driver's capability. In some Asian cultures, where security is appreciated, the car might ask, ‘Do you want to enable safety mode?’

How drivers would respond to context-aware HMIs, where information surfaces and disappears, remains to be seen. Schreiner points out that any time the driver needs to look at the screen to see what's popped up, it's distracting. And the changes themselves might catch the driver's eye and distract him.

Drivers may be quite unwilling to give up their autonomy, he thinks. "The automakers will have to be very careful when it comes to limiting the amount of information given to the driver or automating that," Schreiner says. "Consumers generally don't like having information taken away or having someone else decide what it's appropriate to see."

Susan Kuchinskas is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on digital HMIs, download TU’s Human Machine Interface Technologies report.

For more all the latest telematics trends, visit Telematics Japan 2011 on Nov. 29-30 and Telematics China 2011 on Dec. 1 (both events are in Tokyo) as well as Content & Apps for Automotive USA 2011 on Nov. 29-30 in San Diego.

For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s In-Vehicle Smartphone Integration Reportand  Smart Vehicle Technology: The Future of Insurance Telematics.

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