When the iPhone made its debut seven years ago, it was a game-changer, redefining the telephone and the computer in one nimble swipe. Its capacitive touchscreen transformed the way people interact with technology, creating a new industry benchmark for gadget design and heralding a new era of convergence. Even though Apple did not invent touchscreen technology – the first touchscreen models were made in the 1960s, 10 years before Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded their company – the release of the iPhone launched multi-touch technology into the mainstream market.
The touchscreen is now ubiquitous and can be found on refrigerators, beside TV news anchors and more recently on the dashboards of automobiles. The touchscreen revolution is speedily changing the environment that drivers need to manage while on the road and fast replacing the analogue, knob and button-studded dashboard with a fluid, digital playground. Taking a phone call, checking email and browsing the internet used to be reserved for the office or home but with the emergence of smartphones and dashboards with display units, those functions are now available in vehicles.
What’s more, the touchscreen dashboard has a cost advantage over its physicalcounterpart and can save automobile manufactures money. Today, high quality, multi-touch in-car infotainment is expected as a standard in a growing number of automobiles and the technology’s application is set for exponential growth. But Apple co-founder and physical dashboard proponent, Steve Wozniak, says touchscreens aren’t the best solution for in-car infotainment, especially with regard to ergonomics. Wozniak held this view during a discussion about driving distractions in vehicles and what solutions can be seen in the future to limit these distractions in the car at Ford’s Trend Conference, recently.
He also raised safety concerns by describing the touchscreen dashboard as a cheaper option that can save companies money at the expense of drivers’ wellbeing. “The problem of touchscreen dashboards is that it’s hard to find the right button to press without reaching over and taking your eyes off the road, he said.
Current in-vehicle systems that incorporate touchscreens require the driver to look at the display even for minor tasks that don’t require visual feedback such as air conditioning control. While the technology may be great for waiting out traffic jams, it might not work out quite well for drivers on the move and may even make driving hazardous.
This development has not gone unnoticed by the public. American automobilemanufacturer, Ford Motors launched Ford Sync, a factory-installed, integratedin-vehicle communications and entertainment system that allows users to make hands-free telephone calls, control music and perform other functions with the use of touch and voice commands in 2007, but the company has seemingly assumed Wozniak’s position with plans to restore buttons and knobs to its high-tech dashboards after drivers complained that the system made common tasks such as changing radio stations and adjusting audio volume demand too much attention. The potentially distracting panels will be combined with more traditional controls in newer models from 2014.
Another automobile manufacturer in the touchscreen infotainment game is Toyota, with its Entune Technology, which encompasses the vehicle’s complete audio display stack,including bluetooth, voice recognition, USB, and a touch-based display screen as well as access to navigation and a rich set of applications and data services referred to as the Entune App Suite" on select models. Forbes magazine took a stab at the touchscreen dashboard technology by describing it as the worst technology trend of 2012, mainly because drivers need to take their eyes off the road before using it. According to Forbes, the problem is made worse by “car manufacturers’ insistence on pairing their systems with software that is years behind the intuitive interfaces that users have become used to, not unlike those of their smartphones, with simple tasks such as browsing through radio stations often pushed behind four or five menu levels.” So what hope fortouchscreen in-car infotainment?
In spite of these limitations, the touchscreen dashboard can still be a valuable piece of technology in the car if implemented properly by addressing issues such as overly-small touch buttons and ineffectual voice commands, amongst others, to make the technology viable, according to Wozniak. "It’s hard to find the right button to press without reaching over and taking your eyes off the road, but if companies made the touch buttons larger and therefore, easier to press, there’s less of a chance of hitting the wrong button and taking your eyes off the road even further. It’s easy to hit the buttons on a phone because you’re holding it; when you’re not holding it and it’s on a dashboard, it’s so hard to tap and hit the right buttons, he explained.
With the myriad of opportunities for development available in this area oftechnology, automobiles are becoming a topic of increasing interest for high-tech industry manufacturers such as Apple, as evidenced by the company’s addition of ‘eyes free mode’ in Siri, a car integration feature that is a part of its latest iOS 7. Through the voice command button on vehicles’ steering wheel, users will be able to ask Siri questions without taking their eyes off the road. To minimize distractions even more, the iOS device’s screen won’t light up. With the eyes free feature, users can ask Siri to call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use maps and get directions, read notifications, find calendar information, add reminders, and more with minimal distraction from the actual task of driving.
Apple CEO, Tim Cook, during the company’s Q2 2013 result announcement, underlined the importance of ‘building something for the car’ and perhaps offering a clue to what the company’s next big innovation is. A recent patent filing by the company shows that it may be focusing on building the car dashboard of the future.
The filing describes the patent, Digital Dash, as a revolutionary form of dashboard that is ‘stylistically attractive, lower in cost, customizable by the user, programmable in both the tactile and visual sense, and with the potential of enhancing interior safety and vehicle operation.’
Due for release in 2014, the technology will feature an in-car touch screen system that is fitted with lasers and cameras to track head and eye movements, a new platform that mirrors the users’ iPhone on the in-car display alongside on-screen buttons designed to feel like real knobs, switches and sliders and other services without the user having to take their eyes off the wheel. Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Ferrari, Chevrolet, Kia, Hyundai, Volvo, Jaguar, and a number of other manufacturers are on board, with plans to incorporate the technology into their new car models this year.
By: Toyin Obire