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7 min read

An exciting time for car UX: Designing the driving experience of tomorrow

With increasingly innovative technologies, the automotive industry is turning to UX design for better, safer driving experiences.

A 3D illustration of a car dashboard with various widgets presenting the driver with relevant information

Illustration by Eli Zapa

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Today’s cars are powerful computers that help us stay informed, entertained, and connected while we’re on the road. The advanced technologies that we find in cars today range from real-time traffic and news alerts, to self-driving and self-parking capabilities, to music and movie streaming for travelers who want to enjoy the ride. With so many ways to interact with drivers and passengers, there’s an incredible opportunity for car designers to shape how these experiences work and feel for people all over the world. It’s an exciting time for car design.

That’s why automakers and tech companies are racing to build better experiences for car owners. They’re doing this through a mix of collaboration and competition, knowing very well that those who can design intuitive and enjoyable in-car experiences will truly stand out from the crowd.

One place that’s getting much of the attention is the in-car information and entertainment (or “infotainment”) system, where drivers can stay engaged and connected while they’re on the road. Another is the dashboard that shows you how your car is doing, with a mix of gauges and warning lights. These are now blending together into a continuous car interface that resembles the consumer technologies in most other industries today, including mobile phones and augmented reality displays.

But car interfaces weren’t always so complicated. A 1923 Ford Model T – one of the earliest mass-produced cars – had a single gauge used to monitor the charging system. In the second half of the century, car dashboards went from fashion statement to utilitarian instrument, focused on providing comfort to travelers during long commutes and road trips. It wasn’t until the early 2010s that touchscreen displays became a common sight, just as we see in cars today.

In recent years, the technological capabilities of cars have increased dramatically. A typical car now has over 100 million lines of code, yet the design and integration of these new tools has yet to be refined. In a 2020 survey of new car owners in the U.S., the software interface was the most challenging part of the car to use, making up almost 25% of the problems reported. That’s why user experience design is more important than ever for cars to succeed in the marketplace. This means there are a lot of new design challenges to solve and in doing so, impact how millions of people get around.

Prevailing UX patterns aim to capture and engage attention for as long as possible. But the challenge for car UX designers is to allow drivers to stay informed, entertained, and connected while keeping their attention on the road ahead.

Designing for safety first

When it comes to designing for drivers, safety is often a top priority. Because a distracted driver can have life-and-death implications for themselves as well as others, whether they’re on the road or in the car, it’s important that vehicles are designed with this primary goal in mind.

This approach differs greatly from prevailing UX patterns, which aim to capture and engage attention for as long as possible. The challenge for car UX designers is to allow drivers to stay informed, entertained, and connected while keeping their attention on the road ahead.

Beyond safety, there are other UX considerations such as designing for trust and education around new electric and self-driving technologies. And finally, there are the more commonly-shared objectives of creating systems that are intuitive and enjoyable to use by all.

With that in mind, let’s dive into some of the key areas of car UX, and explore how they might be influenced by great design:

1. The self-driving experience

One of the biggest design opportunities right now is centered around the self-driving capability of cars. Certain vehicles today can perform tasks like steering, accelerating, decelerating, and changing lanes on the freeway. With the help of sensors, cameras, and machine learning, cars can make increasingly better and more intelligent decisions on the road.

When driving becomes a shared activity between human and machine, how might design facilitate this collaboration? Designers will need to consider how self-driving behavior is displayed to drivers, so that it builds confidence in the system. For example, showing that the car recognizes lane markings and nearby vehicles can help communicate its awareness of the surroundings. Such displays can run unobtrusively in the background, available to the driver whenever they want to check whether the system is working.

Taking this further, how might a car signal to the driver that it’s about to change lanes? Or, how can it alert the driver to take over a more complicated driving task, such as taking a sharp turn? Design elements like timing, messaging, and audio cues are all important factors to facilitate trust in a partially self-driving system.

According to a recent report by Deloitte, drivers across the world are still very cautious about self-driving technology, as they don’t believe it’s safe. This creates additional design opportunities to educate drivers about how self-driving systems work, helping slowly establish trust in these systems through exposure and consistently positive driving experiences.

A rendering of a self-driving, autonomous car with various screens

2. The electric vehicle (EV) experience

Another interesting area for UX design is crafting the experience of driving electric, battery-powered vehicles. This emerging ecosystem presents many new opportunities to design how drivers charge their cars and monitor their battery usage.

Drivers can charge their cars at home, at a charging station, or in a parking spot while they shop nearby. Each context has its own unique design challenges. For example, how might drivers monitor their car’s battery status from their phones? And what’s the best way to visualize this information, when we’re working with units like kilowatts and kilowatt-hours?

If the driver is waiting in his car while it charges, what entertainment options are available to them? These might include games, movie streaming, web browsing, or a spa-like environment that allows for a more relaxing experience. Designers can also consider integrating comfort into the experience, with extras like air purification or massage seats.

Many drivers of electric vehicles experience range anxiety, or a worry that their cars will run out of juice before they have a chance to charge it. Some might compare this to the fear of having their phones run out of battery.

In an effort to alleviate some anxiety, certain cars will estimate how much battery is left, or give a range for how far the car can travel based on current energy usage. However, there are still some mishaps, like in cases when a car starts going uphill, the range estimate can change drastically, as it assumes that the rest of the route will be uphill and will use just as much energy. There’s certainly a chance to improve how energy usage is communicated to drivers, in a way that inspires worry-free driving.

One possibility might be that the driver tells the car their planned route for the day. The car can then account for any elevation changes, or unusual energy usage, throughout the journey. In addition, it can either recommend convenient places to stop for a charge, or show a reassuring message that there’s no need to charge on the way.

Electric vehicles offer tons of new challenges and opportunities for designers to craft and refine the driving experience.

A rendering of an electric car recharging while parked at home

3. The connected car experience

Many cars today are equipped with internet connectivity, which means they can send and receive data, download software updates, and communicate with other connected devices. This opens up the possibility for online services and experiences to be accessed directly from the car.

So how might these online services be designed? And how can we enable drivers to personalize these experiences to fit their individual lifestyles? For example, a business executive might want to review the top news headlines each morning, check their calendar, and do some online shopping while waiting in traffic.

A family visiting a new city might want to receive restaurant recommendations, look for nearby parking, or take a guided tour through the city’s major historical sites with the car serving as their tour guide.

As more cars connect online, there will be many chances to design unique and personalized experiences that can be enjoyed directly from the car itself.

A driver interacting with a touchscreen with an internet connection in the car

4. Designing touchscreens for drivers

A major consideration for UX designers today is the design of driving-appropriate interfaces that center around touchscreen technology. Today, you can find in-car touchscreens that are large vertical tablets, or ones that extend across the entire dashboard.

The challenge is not only to design user-friendly interfaces, but also to pair touchscreens with additional control options so that drivers can choose how they want to interact with the car. These options might include voice commands, gestures, physical knobs, or touchpads that can interpret handwriting. Recently, certain automakers have re-introduced the well-loved knobs and physical buttons that allow drivers to access frequently-used features without taking their eyes off the road.

Voice commands are also considered to be safe since they don’t require drivers to look away from the road. The challenge, however, is designing voice commands that are natural and intuitive for drivers to use, and voice recognition systems that support a more humanistic form of language.

For example, drivers can now say “I’m hungry,” and the car responds with a list of nearby restaurants. Without this ability to parse natural language, voice technology can be overly distracting, especially when drivers have to memorize the exact words in the exact order that would activate a feature.

Finally, cars can now turn into the interface for a driver’s phone, through features like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Drivers can access simplified, driving-appropriate versions of their phone apps, such as Spotify or Google Maps. The toned-down interfaces take into consideration readability, the size of touch targets, and menu complexity in order to minimize the attention required to interact with the app. This and many upcoming integrations show how car companies and tech companies are working together to create new driving experiences.

A person interacting with a car touchsreen

Final Thoughts

There are many more aspects of car UX that pose unique design challenges, such as passenger experiences, ridesharing experiences, and the retail aspects around buying and reselling a car.

It’s clear that innovative technologies, such as in-car infotainment systems, will set the direction for cars of the future. Providing a smooth, safe, and enjoyable experience will be a priority, as car design converges with digital experience, and continues to evolve to meet the needs of tomorrow’s drivers.

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