Your next car will look more like a Tesla in a controversial way
When the You’re here The Model S came out ten years ago, it was unlike anything else on the market. And I’m not talking about the fact that it’s electric – I mean the interior design.
Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s lead designer, placed a massive 17-inch vertical touchscreen in the center of the car. It dominates the dashboard and you control almost everything in the car through it – for better or for worse.
“Everything we do at Tesla has to be beautiful,” von Holzhausen said in July 2017 at the Tesla Model 3 launch. “But beauty is only great when it’s functional.”
Nearly 10 years after the Model S was released, the rest of the auto industry seems, perhaps reluctantly, to follow von Holzhausen and Tesla down the touchscreen path.
When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in 2007, he spoke of the need to create a revolutionary user interface. To prove the point, Jobs showed a slide of the four major “smartphones” of the time – all four had small screens and tiny keyboards. In retrospect, they look just as ridiculous today as they did when Jobs showed (when we didn’t even know what he was about to show, we just knew it would be much better than those other Telephone(s).
The years-long automotive development cycle means that the automotive industry is moving much more slowly than the phone industry, but it helps illustrate the huge change that is happening. Almost every new vehicle or concept shown is filled with screens, along with a handful of physical buttons required by law (hazard lights, the main one).
“I don’t think anyone thought virtualized switches were something people would accept five years ago,” said Nichole Kraatz, chief engineer of battery electric trucks for General Motors. Reverse. “Everyone wanted a hundred buttons everywhere.”
Now, she says, some manufacturers are moving to full virtualization, and owners either love it or hate it. She doesn’t mention the name of a certain Texas-based electric vehicle maker or its Twitter-loving billionaire CEO, but it’s clear who she’s talking about.
The interior of the new 2024 Chevrolet Silverado EV, unveiled earlier this year at CES, tries to fit in between all the buttons and screens. The new electric pickup has a horizontal 17-inch touchscreen that controls most of the car’s settings, but there’s also a row of dedicated climate control and temperature setting buttons for changing the fan speed, set the climate to Auto, and activate the front and rear defrosters. .
There is a limit how far you can go with a screen, says Ralph Gilles, global design manager for Stellantis, in an interview with Reverse. Stellantis is the new parent company of Chrysler, Dodge, RAM, Fiat and Peugeot, among others, following a merger between Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot.
“The cars are starting to look like the cockpit of an Airbus A380,” explains Gilles. “There’s a middle ground, and that sweet spot is something we’re looking at. We want the interior to be an interior, with soft and beautiful materials.
He raises another concern about the switch to electric vehicles: energy consumption. Screens consume a lot of electricity, and if you’re trying to save electrons, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to fill the inside with screens.
“We are analog animals and we can only contemplate so many things at the same time,” Gilles points out. “In our research, people like a touch interface.” But once a button is installed in a car, it stays there forever. Screens allow faster adoption of new technologies and free up space for more storage, which is always in demand in a car.
“With screens, we can change the function of the interior very quickly and introduce functionality without the need to create a button,” explains Gilles. “It is infinitely modifiable.”
The new Silverado EV builds on that idea with a customizable tray of “soft” switches that live onscreen at all times. They’re not physical buttons, but Kraatz thinks having them on the touchscreen, in a predictable place at all times, should be the next best thing.
“There’s plenty of space on the 17-inch screen to display whatever you want,” says Kraatz. The top tray is reconfigurable and contains buttons for things people need all the time. “If you use Tow/Haul a lot, you can bring it to the persistent tray. If you use Apple Music a lot, you can drag and drop it there.
The idea is to give people what they want and make their life easier by customizing the vehicle, but without replacing one problem with another and further frustrating the user. In the Silverado EV and other upcoming GM vehicles, each vehicle driver will have a profile that customizes everything from seating position and radio presets to persistent switches at the top of the screen.
It’s not only screens that change the way drivers and cars interact. Voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant are increasingly integrated into new vehicles, giving owners the ability to control their smart home and vehicle simply by speaking to them.
The Lamborghini Huracan EVO was the first car to give Alexa the ability to change climate control and seat heating settings, but it’s far from the last. Volvo recently integrated Google Assistant into its new cars to better connect the vehicle to owners’ digital ecosystems.
“We are integrating the car as a native device into the Google Home ecosystem,” says David Holecek, director of digital experiences for Volvo, in an interview with Reverse. “It will enable and open up many new experiences by allowing other services to interact with the car. And it’s not just about interaction, but also about sharing information about the state of the vehicle, its location, and more depending on the permissions you grant to the services.”
He imagines that all sorts of features can be developed based on this connectivity, not necessarily by Volvo, but also by other developers.
“This is meant to be a catalyst for others to start thinking about it,” says Holecek. “How can we integrate [the car] with our services? Being part of this open ecosystem will drive innovation.
“People who use voice assistants adapt to it,” says Thomas Stovicek, Volvo’s User Experience Manager. “For people using these systems, it’s a benefit, and we hear those comments. It is a developing technology.
But as with so many things, new features like these can be more easily embraced by tech-savvy youngsters. “My children, I have those [Google] speakers at home,” Holecek tells me. “They ask Google Assistant what time it is instead of looking at a clock somewhere.”
The ability to anticipate the owner’s unspoken wants and needs will be crucial in the future, especially as homes and cars become smarter and more connected. “The house is alive, turning off the lights or the heating in a room as you move around the house,” says Gilles. “It appeals to the consumer in an efficient but also effortless way.
In other words, you won’t miss those buttons as much if the car can anticipate your needs before you get them.
“When you think it’s more of a house than a car, we want to create an ambient experience,” says Gilles. “We’re not trying to erase our inherited mindset, but we want to look at it in a holistic and new way… The technology is there to do that.”
Sure, this move from buttons to screens is just the beginning. Much bigger change is yet to come as truly self-driving cars become a reality – and automakers are actively considering what that looks like too. It used to be that self-driving car concepts had crazy things like a library or a garden inside, but we’re getting much closer to reality now.
Volvo is looking at ways to recommend videos or podcasts to the driver based on your destination, traffic and how long it will take you to get there. The company has already added YouTube to its cars, and other content providers are expected to launch Android Automotive apps soon.
“Is there a way to help people relax, de-stress, and detox mentally and physically?” Gilles asks himself. “It may be as simple as a game or a book on tape. As stressful as driving in a traffic jam in Los Angeles can be, you might look forward to being stuck in traffic and coming out of this experience better than when you got in the car.
He wants happier and healthier drivers, and at the end of our conversation, Gilles asks himself perhaps the most crucial question of all: “How can we use this technology to help you relax?”
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