If you look closely at automotive plans for the near-term, three to five years, there’s to be an interesting shift going on. Sometime shortly, the number of buttons that you usually expect on a car’s dashboard is going to drop. A peak at some of the recent crop of concept cars seems to confirm the trend toward dashboards free of traditional buttons or knobs. The concept cars include, according to a story in Saturday’s Automotive News, the BMW I Vision Future Interaction, Acura Precision or VW T-Cross Breeze.
Concept cars are the first steps in automotive planning. They present a global view of near-term engineering thinking that is usually right on the money. After all, why would an automaker go to the trouble of creating a concept car except to gauge reaction to changes and improvements? And, once the changes are out there in the concept vehicles, the next step is for changes to be adopted by production design staffs.
IHS Automotive, a major provider of automotive market research, confirmed the trend in its latest study of design trends. Using a five-year term, the study said that sales in the following areas will jump dramatically:
- Steering wheel controls
- Speech recognition
- Touch screen technology
- Gesture controls
Putting numbers on its predictions, IHS forecast annual sales increases of steering wheel switches to jump 11 percent; speech recognition systems to rise 12 percent; touch screen technologies to climb 13 percent, and gesture control systems to spike 35 percent. Traditional button tech will remain nearly stagnant, increasing only two percent.
Mark Boyadjis, an IHS analyst, asserts that drivers like car control environments that have the same controls as their smartphones, game consoles, and tablets. “Consumer electronics are a leading indicator for [cockpit controls] in the car. Touch screens, for example, are well-established in cars today. We’ve had them in consumer electronics for a long time,” he emphasized.
Looking back just 30 years, one can see a revolution has already occurred on the dashboard. For example, said Automotive News, in the 1980s, the Cadillac Allante’s dash had more than 40 buttons. Today, though, with touch and other technologies, the number of pushbuttons visible has shrunk dramatically to, perhaps, a dozen or so.
The balance that engineers have to remember is that motorists have to be safe, keeping their minds on the road and hands on their steering wheels. However, given the race to develop the electronic dash of the future, these are chores that are easier said than done. Electronic systems generate lots of noise over time. Indeed, J.D. Power’s annual Vehicle Dependability Study shows that infotainment and audio systems generate one-fifth of the problems reported in cars that are only 36 months old. The most frequently cited problems by J.D. Power include:
- Balky Bluetooth pairing
- Unreliable voice recognition
- Hard-to-use navigation systems
Since these electronic systems are so important to a carmaker’s competitiveness, automakers get aboard right away, ensuring their reliability. Take Ford’s MyFord Touch user interface. After receiving many usability complaints, the automaker redesigned the interface, placing eight control buttons below the console screen. So, buttons are still playing an integral role and will likely continue to do so although the numbers available will likely be substantially less.