We owe Chris Bangle an apology. The avant-garde BMW designer was roundly castigated when his provocative reworks of the 5 Series and 7 Series sedans hit the streets in the early 2000s. The undercut bodysides, contorted surfacing, and edgy detailing offended the auto industry’s chattering classes.
Yet even the so-called “Bangle butt,” the squared-off trunklid with unusual cutlines that improved straight-line stability in crosswinds and delivered an easily accessible load space, was relatively spared the opprobrium heaped on the first generation of the iDrive telematics interface. It wasn’t a Bangle invention. But the philosophy behind it—reducing the proliferation of buttons in the cockpit while increasing access to vehicle functionality—aligned with his iconoclastic take on automotive design.
iDrive used a chunky, twist-and-press, haptic-feedback rotary controller that tilted through four axes to access various menus and present information on a screen. It was criticized for being complex and difficult to use. But after driving more than 70 vehicles during evaluations for our annual SUV and Car of the Year awards, many equipped with touchscreen user interfaces, that original iDrive concept now looks like a paragon of common-sense industrial design.
Touchscreens have changed the world. Many of you have one within arm’s reach as you read this. They’re seductively reductive in terms of design, limpid dark pools that explode into color and movement at the swish of a finger to help you unlock the mysteries of modern life. Or order a pizza. But they’re a poor user interface while piloting a machine that moves.
In the aftermath of the 2017 collision between the USS John S. McCain and a civilian tanker in the Singapore Strait in which 10 sailors died, the U.S. Navy is about to ditch touchscreen helm controls on its destroyers. Reporting on the investigation into the incident, the U.S. Naval Institute said a complex touchscreen system that sailors had been poorly trained to use had contributed to a loss of control of the ship.
Automakers have fallen in love with touchscreens not just because they look cool but because they save money: Using software to create a glitzy and glamorous user interface costs a whole lot less than designing, making, and assembling a bunch of switches and buttons. And you can create more menus and icons to do more things with no real penalty in manufacturing costs or vehicle weight. More perceived feature value at marginal cost: Touchscreens are an auto industry bean counter’s dream.
But the problem of complex systems and poor training is just as real in a new car as on the bridge of a Navy destroyer. During Of The Year testing, I was struck by the fact that every manufacturer’s touchscreen interface had a totally different layout and logic path. Couple that with the fact that most of us only give our vehicles’ owner’s manuals a cursory read, and the potential for operator error is obvious. And the error might be more serious than accidentally selecting the wrong radio station.
Raluca Budiu, director of research at user interface and experience specialist Nielsen Norman Group, points out that although touchscreen dashboards offer more flexibility than analog dashboards, they have one big disadvantage: no haptic feedback.
In the analog world, we can learn the location of a physical button and then find it without directing much attention to it, Budiu says. (That’s how, she notes, people play the piano while reading music, or touch-type on a real keyboard.) Locating a button on a screen, however, requires you to visually confirm its position. When more buttons are hidden under more menus, selecting them involves multiple touchscreen interactions, requiring even more time and attention. Budiu’s obvious conclusion: “Time spent with the user interface is time spent ignoring the road.”
iDrive wasn’t perfect. But its rotary controller provided a firm anchor point for the driver’s hand, even on bumpy roads, with the haptic feedback delineating clear paths to digital buttons on a high-mounted screen located adjacent to the primary view through the windshield.
It was an idea ahead of its time.