Is a steering wheel the best way to interact with cars?
What do you think the future will be like for transport UI? Will it even require a UI?
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For the next 20 to 50 years, the driving factors in the future of transportation are safety, congestion, and energy efficiency. All three are interrelated. The primary enabling technologies are increasingly cheap and powerful embedded electronics and software for data sensing, transmitting, analysis, and storage.
What this means for vehicles in general and cars in particular is more automation. For automobiles, expect technologies to detect imminent collisions, lane departures, and driver impairment. These technologies may alert the driver, alert authorities, or assume control of the car. There may be in-vehicle routing suggestions based on real-time traffic data, different tolls for different roads at different times of day, ways to better integrate mass transit and car use, automated traffic spacing (e.g., active cruise control), and new intelligent powertrain technologies (e.g., plug-in hybrids).
Ironically, more automation for transportation means more UI not less. For safety and reliability reasons, the automation will need overrides and backup manual control. There will need to be a means for the operators to monitor the automation and the environment to sufficient level that they know when and how to step in if necessary. Much of the automation above doesn’t cut the operator out of the loop, but rather provides more data for operator decision-making. These have to be presented in an effective but non-distracting manner.
I wouldn’t anticipate the steering wheel and pedals in cars being removed or replaced any time soon. As I said, there will continue to be a need for manual control. Like the qwerty keyboard, wheel-and-pedals are far from optimal, but they have such broad and deep cultural penetration that changing to something else would be too disruptive.
For more on the future of automobiles, see Intelligent Transportation Systems.
I don't see UI going away in cars at all. There will be either more of it, or it will look different. I see mobile phones as becoming very important for use in a car. For example, why can't my iPhone be my car key too? When sitting in the car, why can't I just tap on my friend's address in Address Book and have the car's GPS show me the map, instead of re-entering it? Manufacturers are using Bluetooth in cars already; why not use an existing technology to integrate mobile phones now?
I suspect future cars, especially those aimed at younger drivers, will stop including a radio or CD player; they would include only an amplifier and an interface to your mobile device, where all your music is stored anyway.
As for the steering wheel, I think that yes, it remains the best way to interact with a car. But as more and more automation is introduced to the point of having cars capable of driving themselves, I see the steering wheel becoming a retractable item. But I don't think that it will ever go away completely.
The key thing that will happen is that 'hardware' departments and 'software' departments of car manufacturers will become more integrated to get shorter release cycles and allow for a lot more innovation.
You will see an acceleration in the car industry in terms of new and innovative products.
You will get a deep integration with networks, like the internet for all kinds of applications.
The key driver will be innovation based on software.
A UI will remain for as far as I can see. A lot of experiments with guided cars are already ongoing for at least 13 years (I think I visited back then a research company who showed guided cars when I as still a student HCI).
Having driven a gear shift after years of automatic, I wondered about that...
Speed control: A single tilt pedal, forward = faster, backward = slower, rest position = keep speed. I am not sure how to solve the problem that most people just don't brake hard enough in emergencies - that would probably be exaggerated with that kind of control.
Head-Up Display - give some indicators how the car corners are aligned on the road (relative to, say, road markings). After navigating Portuguese back roads, that's the first I'd implement.
With that addition, the steering wheel would be fool-proof.
Integrating Sat Nav in the HUD - navigating 7-exit roundabouts of which the sat nav knows merely 4... well, it wouldn't help, but it would at least be a cool way to play "guess your exit".