Telematics and enhanced consumer usability

Telematics and enhanced consumer usability

When using technology in a vehicle, efficiency is key. The success of Apple’s iPod and the love affair with smartphones illustrate how consumers are drawn by ease-of-use. But when the consumer is a driver, making technology simple and intuitive is not just a convenience—it’s essential to safety. It’s no surprise, then, that current innovations strive to increase functionality for automotive users as well as minimize driver distraction. (For more on driver distraction, see Telematics and driver distraction: Telcos take control and Driver distraction: The battle over in-car apps.)

One current trend involves making the apps available for various smartphone operating systems usable in the car. “These are things the user of a smartphone takes advantage of every day—Pandora, social networking, and location-based services like traffic, weather, and navigation,” says Mark C. Boyadjis, senior analyst and manager for North American Automotive with IHS iSuppli, a global technology market research firm.

Many consumers have come to expect on-the-move access to this sort of information—even if that just means they’re using their smartphones in the car. “When you have a bunch of mobile, on-the-go apps, they’re going to be mobile in the car,” Boyadjis says. “The question is how to take apps that seem relevant for the in-vehicle experience and make them safe to use.” The apps themselves don’t necessarily need to change, but the car’s HMI needs to work with the app to create the connection.

Inside and outside OS

One example is the Pandora streaming music service. A number of auto manufacturers now enable access to Pandora through their vehicles’ onboard system, which integrates the buttons and features of Pandora using either wired or wireless technology without the user’s phone being involved.

Another approach would create infotainment systems that “use the same OS as tablets and smartphones so they can access that market where everyone can publish,” says Silvio Nasi, sales director for embedded and automotive technologies with Loquendo, an Italy-based company specializing in speech recognition and synthesis technologies.

But bringing an outside OS to the automobile means consumers may have access to apps that aren’t safe to use while driving. “It’s something still to be refined,” he says. “But the idea is definitely good.”

Improve integration, minimize distraction

Whether app-related or not, current advances in consumer usability are focused on streamlining the way drivers receive and transmit information. “It’s more complicated than getting devices to communicate,” says Boyadjis. “It’s about using the device.” If you’re in a vehicle and you have your phone hooked up wirelessly, for example, would you rather push a button and say who to call or pick up the device, scroll though your contacts, and then press ‘call’? Using voice “is better and it’s safer,” according to Boyadjis. “One button and you talk to the car like you would anyone else—hands on the wheel, eyes on the road.”

Although touch-screen interfaces are “very cool,” Nasi points out that they’re difficult to use while driving because the smooth surface requires visual contact to find the right button. Instead, he believes the focus is moving toward “very high quality text-to-speech technology.” He notes that this is sometimes perceived as less important than speech recognition, “but most of the time an application speaks to the driver more than it listens, so if you don’t have high quality text-to-speech, you suppress the voice of the navigation system.” He also highlights e-book readers and news systems as uses for this improved technology.

Nasi reports that speech recognition also continues to evolve and become more natural in its interactions with the user. Which is good, because although Boyadjis predicts “voice recognition will be crème de la crème for HMI technology as we continue into the future,” he adds that it’s also “its own worst enemy. With it comes the expectation that it will understand you.” Computers don’t yet have the capability to understand all the nuances of human speech. (For more on voice, see Telematics and speech recognition: Finally ready for prime time?.)

Visual delivery

A final area of improving usability in both the luxury and volume automotive markets is visual displays. “It’s one of the best pieces of technology you can integrate,” Boyadjis says. Now that reconfigurable, complex LCD screens are less expensive, “if you design the GUI correctly, and the font, colors, and contrast are all appropriate for a vehicle environment, it can be a great tool for sending information to the user.” Even better, he suggests, add it to the instrument cluster so it’s in the driver’s line of sight.

Still in development are V2V and V2X technologies that will further impact consumer usability by automating many of the driver’s tasks. Vehicles may communicate with each other and with traffic infrastructure to warn of icy roads or accidents ahead or to convoy for improved fuel economy. Some day, drivers may log on and connect their vehicles to a network that will navigate them automatically within a particular area.

“What you can do today in your car is totally different from only two or three years ago,” says Nasi. “Evolution is running quite quickly.”

Jessica Royer Ocken is a regular contributor to TU.

For more on consumer usability, join the sector’s other key players at the 9th annual Telematics Munich conference on November 9-10 and Content & App for Automotive Europe 2012 in May 2012 in Germany.

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