Automakers may talk a big game about preventing distracted driving and improving safety, but at the same time they continue to provide distracting infotainment systems.
Arguably a response to consumer demand, a recent Harris Poll study of 2,000 drivers suggests there’s serious apprehension on the part of car shoppers too, with more than three in four car owners reporting that they believe in-car connectivity technologies are too distracting and even dangerous to have.
Despite advancements in touchscreen technology, voice-recognition software and the success of mobile platforms like Google’s Android or the iOS system used on Apple’s iPhone, driver’s find the software in modern cars is cumbersome, slow and confusing.
They’re not the only ones either. Countless AutoGuide.com reviews point out the drawbacks of touch-screen infotainment systems, like the slow and buggy MyFord Touch system (seen at the right), or the great-in-theory, but confusing-in-practice Cadillac CUE system.
There is, however, one software maker that is certain it has a solution that is innovative and intuitive, while giving the driver what they want.
“We looked at the critical response to MyFord Touch and CUE,” Andy Gryc says. Gryc is a marketing manager at QNX, a software arm of BlackBerry owner Research in Motion. QNX is at the heart of the Playbook tablet, as well as automotive infotainment systems in many cars today, including Audi, BMW, Land Rover and Porsche . Today, Gryc is speaking about the next step of its platform, CAR 2, and how its going to combat distracted driving.
“[Infotainment systems] need to be something that look, smell and act like the car,” Gryc says.
QNX has just finished up the final touches on its new CAR 2 platform, but what is the company doing to instill confidence in the world of infotainment systems?
For starters, the QNX Car 2 platform is highly customizable. That’s why automakers like it so much. An automaker can grab the system, personalize and brand it, so it can look and act different than another automaker’s QNX based system.
The vanilla (non-branded) CAR 2 system currently looks simple and clean with a consistent design. Outside of the traditional features like a media player, navigation systems and climate controls, the CAR 2 platform has its own apps, much like a smart-phone or tablet.
For example, the system can have vehicle-centric apps, like an interactive manual or service appointment scheduler. For the driver who loves to be connected, there’s social media integration for Facebook and Twitter. QNX showed off a few other useful apps like a weather information app, which provides much more information about the weather than just the temperature. Another cool app was a parking spot locator for lots which are using the “BestParking” service.
To make things even more familiar with drivers, the system can have different profiles for different drivers, ensuring that whoever is driving the car is set up appropriately, just like memory seating.
Gryc explains that QNX’s system runs on something called HTML5, the same core technology behind many of the popular web-based apps you likely use on your internet browser. This means that QNX’s system is future-ready, and that developers can modify existing iPhone or web-based apps for the car platform.
MAKING THE DRIVER HAPPY
In all, QNX is a more versatile, and customizable system, and familiarity can reduce distracted driving. But after several focus groups and studies, QNX found some better ways to make the driver happy.
“A lot of people want to use the phone in the car unfettered,” says Gryc. “A lot of people think that they’re perfectly safe using their phone in the car, but get scared when other drivers are using it.”
He explains one way QNX’s CAR 2 will help. “The systems inside the car will provide access to the same things that they’re used to.”
The goal is to maintain the driving experience. “For example, the driver will say a voice command, and the car can update their Facebook status, and post what you’re listening to,” Gryc explains.
Voice recognition keeps coming up as an important part of solving distracted driving, but in practice it becomes even more difficult to stay focused, since you need to remember many key words to perform the right action.
DESIGN TO BLAME FOR DISTRACTION
Thanks to great tablets and smart-phones, the expectations of a touch-screen system have changed greatly. Compare the design and interface of a car’s infotainment system to that of a mobile device like an iPhone or iPad, and it’s easy to see why consumers are confused, and critics frustrated. The design isn’t consistent, engaging or intuitive.
“These ‘distractions’ could be eliminated by improving UI design,” says Victor Tang, a freelance graphic designer and user-experience expert. He adds, “There are too many bad designs that really cause confusion and frustration to the user.”
Tang argues that there needs to be a better range of customization options, to cater to the different levels of tech-savvy consumers out there.
“Not everyone has the same needs or skills and should be able to personalize according to their lifestyles,” he says. He argues that the customer should be in charge of the features they wish to include or leave out depending on experience levels.
QNX is on a similar wavelength. While the actual car owner won’t be in charge of the interface, QNX’s client (the automaker) will be.
That means QNX based systems can vary in design and interface depending on the intended demographic of the vehicle. So while both Lexus and Toyota vehicles could have a QNX based system, the Toyota system might have a design and include features that are easily accessible to its target audience, like that Facebook, or Twitter integration, while the Lexus might have features that are used more for its audience, like integration into a restaurant rating system, to find the best local eats.
Gryc explains that there’s a fine-line to walk when it comes to car-infotainment design. “What you have to design for a car is a lot more boring looking,” he says. “Things have to look drab in order to make it less compelling, so the driver is looking at the road.”
A SERVICE CENTER IN YOUR CAR
So while your phone and tablet are aiming to provide a rich and animated experience, your car will be much more sedate. However, QNX might be borrowing a successful idea from your iPhone: an app-store.
“We’ve been talking about the possibility of hosting an app-store,” explains Gryc. “We want to give developers a platform, but some automakers might not want that, and there might not be enough volume.” There are still questions to be answered: would you want there to be a huge selection of apps available for the QNX based system, or only apps that have been verified or made specifically by your automaker? “We’d like to control that ecosystem if it gets to that point,” he says.
The thought of having a slew of apps that might not be fully compatible with all variations of cars that QNX will be on, raises some concerns. Gryc acknowledges that the added hardware and computing power of these new infotainment systems adds complexity to the overall vehicle. However, the other proposed solution of having a screen which mirrors a smartphone isn’t more reliable. “In that case you have to think about so much more like battery life of the device, and connections,” he says. A phone or device providing constant information to a screen through Bluetooth would affect battery life pretty significantly, and cable standards aren’t always stable, like when Apple released a new connector for its devices which is incompatible with past ones.
The decisions made with the CAR 2 platform seem to be in line with a lot of what both the consumers and automakers are hoping for. Thanks to a focus on clean interface design and versatility, cars equipped with QNX can help establish a confident relationship between infotainment system and driver. If that does happen, ‘distracted driving’ might be hard-parked once and for all.