Better user experience means safer cars

Peter Els

In 2011 Ford Motor Company learnt an important, if somewhat embarrassing,  lesson about the importance of an engaging user experience after the brands 2011 J.D. Power & Associates’ Initial Quality Study saw the marque plunge from fifth position in 2010 to 23rd in that year. The plunge was largely due to dissatisfaction with the company’s in-car infotainment system, MyFord Touch, that used a touch screen, dashboard display and voice commands to help drivers operate radio and climate controls, as well as the navigation system.


Fuelling customer sentiment, many in the automotive press were also highly critical of the system’s complexity, with Consumer Reports going as far as saying that the “aggravating design” was the main reason it could not give the Ford Edge its coveted designation of “Recommended.”

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Eight years after MyFord Touch became the very symbol of frustrating user experience (UX), automakers have learned that just because a new technology or feature helps create a fresh, snazzier look, customers are not necessarily going to love living with it every day.

"The shift in technology is enclosed within the cockpit," says Mark Boyadjis, an automotive user experience analyst with IHS Markit. "What automakers are looking at is new ways to drive customer engagement, brand user experience and to clean up the interior and simplify use."

But this is easier said than done: With the roll-out of highly connected vehicles, that offer passengers an ever increasing choice of infotainment services, manufacturers are hard-pressed to come up with simplified controls and displays that offer commuters intuitive interaction at all times.

Smart steering wheels do more than guide the vehicle

In December 2017 ZF unveiled a new steering wheel concept that is set to revolutionise the perception of this age-old device’s functionality. According to Juergen Krebs, vice president of engineering for steering wheel systems and driver airbags, “As ZF pursues its goal of “Vision Zero”, a critical enabler will be vehicle and driver interface. As new automated functions become more commonplace, advanced technologies employed in the steering wheel are important and can help improve driver safety and awareness of the current vehicle control mode.”

ZF’s new concept uses gesture control to trigger a number of vehicle functions pre-selected by the vehicle manufacturer. It works intuitively through gestures commonly used on phones and other smart devices. For instance, a single tap on the cover could activate the horn, while a double tap or tap and swipe across the rim would activate pre-determined functions associated with that portion of the wheel rim; such as adjusting the climate control. These gestures are supported and confirmed by the center display and accompanying graphic and light displays to enhance communication between driver and vehicle.


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The wheel uses multiple interfaces to indicate the vehicle control mode: A seven-inch LCD display in the center of the steering wheel rim indicates if the driver or the car is in control. Additionally, an LED light strip is integrated into the steering wheel rim with blue lights indicating autonomous mode, white lights for manual driving mode and red lights for driver warning. 

Other uses for the light strip include yellow lights which depict left or right-hand turn signals – while glowing or flashing lights would indicate which functions have been selected by the driver.

The system also features a wide range of functions cleverly integrated into the wheel including 10 capacitive sensors in the outside rim detecting where the driver is gripping the wheel, and one additional on the inside of the rim detecting if an advisable grip is being employed. This enables accurate hands on/off detection – helping to determine whether the driver or the vehicle is in control. This will be critical for Level three and four autonomous operation.

Unexpectedly, the wheel’s unique configuration presented the engineers with new challenges: Due to the centrally located LCD screen the driver’s side airbag can no longer be located in its traditional area, prompting ZF engineers to design an airbag that deploys from the back side of the wheel through the rim, covering the display and helping to protect the driver in case of a crash.

While the visual feedback to the driver offered by ZF’s ‘smart wheel’ is commendably intuitive and interactive, the modern connected vehicle seeks to satisfy the consumers demand for access to detailed information at all times. This is mostly accomplished through sophisticated, often complex and distracting, visual displays.

3D Visualization makes it easier to process information 

Although the proliferation of displays in the interior of the cabin allows for more individuality, variety of shapes and appearances this information is often distracting when drivers have to interpret warnings or information presented in traditional instrument clusters. Offering a potential solution to the problem, Continental has proposed 3D instrumentation as a means of clarifying and segmenting all this data to prevent driver-information overload.

To make it easier for drivers to visualize important information Continental is developing an innovative 3D display with a high-definition (1920 x 720 pixel) 12.3- in screen featuring optically-bonded, topographical elements that lend a sense of quality and design individuality to the classic display. The usual air gap between the display surface and front is eliminated, allowing for better colors and visualization while creating an optical illusion in which the viewer believes they are seeing a 3D display.

The unit features a 3D beveled edge with high-level information such as vehicle speed displayed in both digital and graphical formats. Warnings such as "Pedestrian Crossing" and "Slow Down" are augmented by an animation that morphs into a road map, along with simple digital speed read-outs accompanied by weather conditions if automated driving mode is activated.

This visualization makes it easier to process information presented on the screen. The variety of visual levels allows information to be clustered, for better recognition and interpretation by the driver. 

The new 3D display has nothing in common with head-up displays (HUD). One is virtual, the other analog, and their distribution of content is also vastly different; for example the HUD has a much more limited specification of information allowed to be shown in order to minimize driver distraction.

Another distraction most drivers experience on a regular basis is trying to optimize the cabin temperatures for several passengers. This is usually accompanied by several minutes of distracted driving while the temperature settings are adjusted on a trial and error basis.

The Smart Cocoon needs no input from passengers

At the CES in January 2018 French tech supplier Valeo showcased a system, dubbed Valeo Smart Cocoon, that sets the ideal cabin temperature after determining a passenger’s heart rate and respiration, as well as gender. 

Once the system determines each passenger’s biometrics, it automatically warms or cools the seat, door panels and steering wheel.

This allows the vehicle to set unique temperatures for each passenger, and it does so without a blast of air from the dashboard vents. Moreover, to fine-tune the settings the temperature can be further adjusted from a console-mounted tablet, which stores the customised preferences.

Georges de Pelsemaeker, Valeo's health and well-being director, says the system works more quickly than a conventional climate-control system and reduces energy consumption by 30 to 55 percent.

He says the company hopes to offer a production-ready system by 2020 or 2021. However, for the moment, Valeo continues to experiment with the system’s sensors, considering the installation of a small radar in the headliner to detect passengers and collect biometric data. This would eliminate the need for seat sensors entirely.

So while the world waits for fully automated vehicles to reach series production OEMs and suppliers will continue work on improving technologies that enhance intuitive control over infotainment and on-board system functions. 


• David Sedgwick; Automotive News; New kind of climate control can save energy; January 2018;

• Cheryl Jensen; New York Times; ‘Aggravating’ MyFord Touch Sends Ford Plummeting in J.D. Power Quality Survey; June 20111;

• Safe Car News; ZF develops advanced steering wheel concept for automated driving; December 2017;

• SAE International; Continental unveils new 3D display cluster; August 2017;

• David Sedgwick; Automotive News; New kind of climate control can save energy; January 2017;

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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