Car Companies Are Still Struggling with Interface Design

Headline from The Verge:

The 2017 BMW 5 Series emphasizes design over intuitive software

First off, shame on whoever the editor is for creating that headline. They’re conflating design with the superfluous. Design isn’t how it looks, it’s how it works.

How many times do we have to go over this?

If you do eventually get your phone connected over Bluetooth, you have a few options for controlling iDrive. The most novel way is with those gesture controls. I was excited to try them because, as I’ve learned after playing around with many gadgets, it’s often a gimmicky and faulty feature. I hoped that BMW had figured out the magic solution to making it an essential form of interaction. Spoiler: the company hasn’t. The gesture controls didn’t always function, and beyond that, I never wanted to rotate my finger in a circle to adjust the volume level or stick two fingers out to end a call. I tried to make the controls part of my driving experience and ended up never using them, although they were still a fun party trick that entertained my passengers. Buttons and knobs have a 100 percent success rate — why would I want to struggle to change the volume with a twirl of my finger when I could just turn the volume knob?

BMW’s voice commands also weren’t foolproof. The system registered people who have a full name in my phone book, like The Verge’s photographer Amelia Krales, but not addresses like 550 West 25th Street, or simple words like “mom.” Why is it always so hard to call my mom?

Incumbents always laugh at the idea of a newbie coming into their industry and stealing away market share, but the car industry is a great example of an industry ripe for disruption. This happened to the fixed-keyboard smartphones with the iPhone, it’s happening now to the watch world with the Apple Watch, but I’m not sure we can say it’s happening to the auto industry yet (Ford sold 2.5 million cars in 2016, Tesla moved 80K).

It frustrates me when I read about BMW creating it’s own (currently inferior) voice command system, when a lot of us already use Siri or ‘Ok, Google’. It’s bad enough we have redundant AI efforts happening at Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple, but now auto makers are joining in. I understand not wanting to let the tech companies eat your lunch, but something has to give. Let us plug our phones into our cars, our lives are on those devices.

Mercedes-Benz is another company continuing to make cumbersome user interfaces. I recently drove a fully-loaded 2016 E Class sedan and for such a classy, well-engineered, and fun-to-drive car, the on-screen graphics and menus lack the visual sophistication you expect from a Mercedes (fonts are clunky, drop shadows are heavy-handed, background swooshes and texture are dated, animations are stiff), and are also confusing to navigate.

Citroën Origins

I’ve never been a Citroën guy, but this Citroën Origins site is great.

You can explore 360 degree views of the inside and outside of various models from 1919 to 2016. They also include vehicle specs and facts about all the models.

I wish every car maker had a site like this.

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It’s Already Here

You can hail a self-driving Uber in San Francisco starting today:

Starting today, anyone in San Francisco who hails an UberX could find themselves in the backseat of a luxury, self-driving Volvo XC90, complete with leather interior, spinning LIDAR sensor, and a trunk full of computing power. It’s where I found myself last week, after being invited out to the Bay Area for a sneak peak before the official launch.

“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

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Technology, Vehicle

Porsche Mission E

Today’s previous post on artificial engine noises linked to Porsche’s announcement from last year on their electric Mission E:

Don’t call it a 911: Porsche spent much of its presentation at this evening’s Volkswagen Group press conference talking about the new 911, yes, but the real news is the Mission E — an all-electric four-seater with a design that’s well beyond anything Porsche’s ever made. The company is focusing on “long-distance driving” with this concept, but that’s not to say it won’t be exciting to drive: Porsche is promising 600 horsepower, a 0-62mph time “under” 3.5 seconds, a top speed of over 250 km/h (about 155mph), and a total range of over 500 kilometers (311 miles) while driving in a “sporty” manner. Those are Tesla Model S numbers, and it stands to reason that Porsche could command at least the same amount of money, too — well over $100,000 in top configurations. And the company says the Mission E can store an 80 percent charge in just 15 minutes using an 800-volt “Porsche Turbo Charging” system, even faster than Tesla’s Superchargers.

It’s now been over a year since the Mission E was announced and we still haven’t seen anything. I’m skeptical if Porsche has a the ability to assemble a team that can take on Tesla and their computer engineering and AI savvy.

I’ll believe the superior technical specs Porsche is flaunting when I see them.

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A Wonderful Engine Note

Can electric sports cars be sporty without any engine noise?

Not only does a noisy engine give a visceral thrill, knowing that there are thousands of tiny explosions happening to keep you going, but it just sounds awesome. It would be a shame to lose it, and carmakers know it. Bloomberg says Porsche has been looking at artificially inserting noise into the cabin, perhaps via the stereo like some other manufacturers have done, or amplifying the high-pitched hum of the electric motor.

One side of me is appalled by the idea of a car with fake engine noises. The other side of me sees this as a merging of video games and real life.

If the simulation is indistinguishable from reality, does it matter?

Another question: if simulated engine noises become the new normal, will car companies copyright engine sounds?

Innovation & Safety

Comma.ai cancels the Comma One following NHTSA letter:

Renowned iPhone hacker turned entrepreneur George Hotz (aka geohot) has cancelled his autonomous driving startup’s first official product, the Comma One aftermarket add-on that would’ve allowed certain cars to gain Autopilot-like highway driving assistance abilities.

Hotz announced the news on the Comma.ai official Twitter account, noting that the decision to cancel was made after he received a letter from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA letter explained that given its mandate of ensuring safety on U.S. roadways, it needed to ensure the Comma One is compliant with regulations before it can be offered for sale.

Some of these startups are fragile little snowflakes, aren’t they? One letter from the NHTSA and they’re done. Hey Hotz: this isn’t just publishing code to a fucking server, you’re putting physical vehicles onto physical roads.

I’m all for innovation, but safety is kind of important. The transition we’ve begun — from humans driving cars to cars driving themselves — is not something we can take lightly or we run the risk of killing many people.

In the longterm, after we’ve conducted thorough tests and ironed out the kinks, I’m certain autonomous vehicles will be multiple times safer than us humans driving ourselves. Robots don’t drive angry, robots don’t play Pokémon Go while driving and end up killing a young boy, and robots don’t drive drunk.

When We Drove the Cars Ourselves

Tamara Warren was at the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach in August and reflected on the golden age of automobiles:

Being up close with the more elegant pre-war cars at Pebble Beach, it’s natural to see how the affair with the automobile began. Before computers, there were cars. It must have been exciting, to be on the advent of such progress in the early 20th century. That’s what I imagine when I see the cars, what it was like to be alive then, when horses ruled over horsepower. In 1909, the Italian futurists constructed their ideology based on the allure of the automobile, a contemporary thing of seduction of power and speed inspired by rapid innovation:

“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

And:

We’re on the brink of self-driving cars, new ways of thinking about transportation, and the myriad of ways that technology will shape car culture. But what happens if and when we no longer drive for purpose, or even for pleasure? Could the 20-teens be the beginning of the end of motoring as we know it? We live on a planet where fires burn uncontained, where perhaps the golden era of motoring is a flickering flame, as we seek out other solutions that come with other tradeoffs and a new gold-rush of speculation.

I think the act of manually driving a car faces a similar fate as riding a horse: it will become a leisure time activity reserved for the weekends for those that can afford it.

Hacking Cars

BBC News: Tesla cars get hacked:

Tesla has updated its software after researchers from China hacked into the operating system of its electric cars.

The team from Keen Security Lab remotely manipulated the brake system on a Tesla while it was on the move, from a distance of 12 miles (19km).

It used to be computers were the only things that were hacked, but now that cars are computers with wheels, they can be hacked too.

Welcome to the new normal.

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