Automotive HMI: Distraction by Design?

Peter Els

Despite its fascination with the human–machine interface (HMI) the automotive industry has rarely got this right. Remember the early BMW i-Drive interfaces? They were great in theory but impossible to master.

Dave Lyon, a former General Motors designer who is now cofounder of Pocketsquare Design, a startup that specializes in user-experience design, describes the interaction as follows: "When I see somebody who really knows how to use the system, it’s like watching someone play good saxophone, like wow, how many years did it take you to learn that?"

Lyon was part of a panel of HMI experts at an SAE International Congress held earlier this year which advocated an intervention of sorts, urging HMI designers and engineers to stop confusing quantity with quality. The message was clear; stop trying to turn automotive HMIs into iPhones and stop adding features without deleting others.

Instead, they advised HMI developers to focus on reducing the time it takes for a system to complete basic tasks, such as setting up Bluetooth connections with mobile devices. The number of available features also needs to be reduced and highly personalized and simplified.

Moreover, engineers need to start prioritizing the needs of everyday users instead of pandering to tech-savvy early adopters who make up a tiny percentage of vehicle buyers.

Head-up displays increase distraction and reduces driver concentration

In vehicles, head-up displays (HUDs) have ostensibly been developed to reduce driver distraction and help drivers to keep their eyes on the road thereby improving road safety. This is meant to be achieved by displaying navigation information, road signs and other traffic relevant data on the windshield in the driver’s field of vision. However, a study by the University of Toronto now reveals that HUDs actually have the opposite effect.

"The problem with HUDs is that drivers need to split their attention to deal with the added visual information" says professor Ian Spence from the department of psychology at the university. Spence conducted research on what happens when two information sources appear within the same visual range. "Not only will drivers, as they always did, have to concentrate on what is happening on the road, but they will have to attend to whatever information pops up on the windshield in front of them".


In real-world driving this means that the increase in visual information is experienced by drivers as being more stressful. They have to differentiate between warnings of a collision and a recommendation to make a turn, Spence explained. "These competing warnings may be more dangerous than no warning at all".

Carefully constructed tests confirm that under information overload, decisions took as much as 200 percent longer. These missed warnings and slowed reaction times present real threats to safety.

However, simplifying HMI doesn’t have to mean no driver input. Already in 2013 Tejas Desai, head of interiors for Continental, proclaimed the need for a balance in the flow of information: Enough to keep the driver engaged, but not so much as to overwhelm. "What we want to do is have different building blocks that provide information when needed."

Back then Continental suggested systems centered on the driver’s face that would predict driver reaction and help keep eyes on the road.

New eye tracking technology shows promise

Recently French startup SuriCog demonstrated a unique eye-tracking technology which could create a real-time customised user-interface with vehicle infotainment systems.

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A small camera mounted on a (lense-less) spectacle frame measures the reflection of two IR LEDs aimed at the users right eye, after which video image processing determines the actual axis of sight of the wearer.

Also integrated on the right side of the frame is a special telemetry system which gives the distance of the wearer to the nearest physical object in his/her line of sight.

What makes SuriCog's eye-tracking different from other products on the market is that it is not limited to a single screen, but encompasses the whole space. Of particular interest to infotainment applications, multiple users have access to different information depending on where they look.

In fact, the company is conducting an experiment to provide audio guides to visitors at the Louvre museum in Paris. The experiment takes place in front of a wall-sized painting, with triggered audio comments corresponding to elements of the painting being looked at.

Following through with visual stimuli, Volkswagen has introduced 3D smart glasses as standard equipment for some of its manufacturing staff in the company’s main plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. Logistic personnel in the factory will use the glasses for order picking, aiming at improving production process quality.

Important information is displayed in the lenses of the smart glasses and thus directly into the field of vision. In contrast to current tablet-based systems the glasses are operated via voice control which means the workers have both hands free while working.

The glasses are also capable of reading barcodes and guiding the workers by showing the barcode in green if the worker has removed the correct part from the storage location or showing it in red if the wrong part is picked. It’s not difficult to see the HMI potential in future vehicle applications.

Commonly, the design of HMI has been driven by technology. However automotive supplier Continental intends to change over to a more holistic, integrated approach that takes into account the driver’s requirements as well as environmental conditions.

As a result, the driver will be able to access all the relevant information at the right time in the correct manner. The elements of this holistic interface were on display at Continental’s recent TechShow.

When driving, it is essential that the driver’s attention be focused on the safe operation of the vehicle. For this reason, distraction when using the HMI must be minimized, and Continental believes that a display which provides haptic feedback will offer the most intuitive driver interaction with the vehicle.

Another element of this holistic HMI approach is a head-up display which utilises augmented reality. Displaying only relevant data from driver assistance and navigation systems allows the driver to focus on traffic and the driving environment.

The AR HUD is further enhanced with an intelligent light control that optimises the illumination of bends and intersection as well as people moving along the road. In addition, the system which Continental calls Pixel Light, can project navigation hints in the driver’s field of vision.

Finally, the vehicle mirrors are replaced by cameras and display screens. Whilst this is a common concept Continental have taken this to another level. Utilising the display the control unit can blend relevant sensor information into the camera image. For instance, it shows the user if another vehicle (bicycle) is approaching in the blind spot, thereby avoiding everyday accidents that occur when a driver or passenger thoughtlessly opens the door while a bicycle is approaching.

The final frontier: Reading the drivers mind

Having already explored several futuristic technologies, such as using the entire windscreen as a head-up display, to the extensive use of augmented reality, Jaguar Land Rover recently announced another HMI innovation: Improved road safety by using brain waves to monitor driver attention.

The objective is to reduce the number of accidents caused by drivers who are stressed, distracted and not concentrating on the road ahead. In its 'Sixth Sense' research project, the carmaker employs advanced technology, gained from sports, medicine and aerospace, to monitor the driver's heart rate, respiration and levels of brain activity to identify driver stress, fatigue and lack of concentration.

The researchers are also looking at innovations to reduce the time the driver's eyes are off the road whilst driving, and how to communicate with the driver via pulses and vibrations through the accelerator pedal and other controls.

According to JLR Director of Research and Technology, Wolfgang Epple, the basis of the Mind Sense project is to see if a car could effectively read the brainwaves indicating a driver is beginning to daydream, or feeling sleepy, whilst driving.

The human brain continually generates four or more distinct brainwaves at different frequencies. By continually monitoring which type of brainwave is dominant, an on-board computer could potentially assess whether a driver is focused, daydreaming, sleepy, or distracted.

If brain activity indicates a daydream or poor concentration, then the steering wheel or pedals could vibrate to raise the driver's awareness and re-engage them with driving. If Mind Sense does not detect a surge in brain activity following the car displaying a warning action or sound, then it could display it again, or communicate with the driver in a different way, to ensure the driver is made aware of a potential hazard.

Whilst these hi-tech solutions to road safety are admirable, maybe the industry is overthinking the problem. Lyon and the panel at the SAE congress proposed a more commonplace solution: The "Going back to the future" device resembles a pushbutton AM radio from the 1950s combined with a head-up display.

There is a big knob on the left for volume, and six customized preset buttons for favorite connections. This, the driver can operate without looking down, whilst other key information is displayed at eye level on the HUD.

Whatever the route that the industry adopts, it is clear that major changes in HMI are required for the technology to achieve the objectives of safety and enhanced user experience.


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IQPC Gesellschaft für Management Konferenzen mbH
Adresse: Friedrichstrasse 94, 10117 Berlin
Telefonnummer: 030 20913 -274
Fax: 49 (0) 30 20 913 240
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Registereintragungen: Amtsgericht Charlottenburg HRB 76720
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Geschäftsführung: Silke Klaudat, Richard A. Worden, Michael R. Worden