Past, present, and future of car infotainment system

Car infotainment system Nov 17, 2021


An in-vehicle infotainment system is a console that delivers information and entertainment via touchscreen displays. These are designed to enhance the in-vehicle user experience. Infotainment systems aggregate control to cabin functions, media, and navigation. They also enable connectivity with smartphones and provide access to all the media, digital libraries, emails, and messages on their phones ensuring hands-free access on the go.

Broadly speaking an infotainment system can help you with the following features‌

‌In-car User Experience is a holistic term used to define the interaction between the user and the car. This primarily constitutes interaction with the instrument cluster, infotainment system, and centre console.‌

‌‌Modern car infotainment systems try to combine all the constituents of the in-car user experience into one central unit. This is evident in all the budding electric vehicles which have established a dominant presence in the future of the automotive industry. Naturally, the other players are trying to get as close to being a contest to the bar set by EVs such as Tesla.

Past of Car Infotainment System

The year was 1986, Buick unveiled the first digital dash and the concept of a touch screen in the car. Buick Riviera's Graphic control centre (1986) was a 9-inch CRT display that took care of 91 different functions.

Fun Fact: Buick envisioned a digital dash while the car still used a cassette player for music.

Buick Riviera (1986)


Source: Auto Bild

BMW 7 series (2005)

iDrive ‌

Source: Google images

With the advent of computers in the '90s and '00s, major luxury brands ventured into digital dashboards to provide exclusivity to the owners.

A lot hasn't changed from the initial models in which the user interacted with knobs, buttons, and a display.

Future of Car Infotainment System ‌

‌Source: INSIDEEVs

This is the cockpit of the Byton M-Byte. It has a 48-inch screen as the dashboard along with a screen on the steering and centre console. This image here gives a pretty clear idea of what the future holds for automotive UX.

Given the fact that the entire shift in the industry is towards electrical vehicles which have self-driving capabilities, it might not be too surprising for us to get inside a car and be greeted by a personal assistant (talking about the A.I assistant) and chauffeur us around.

Might as well get food ordered by the car when you're late for work.

Present of Car Infotainment System

‌Source: Tata Nexon

Somewhere in between the past concepts and the ambitious future is where the industry lies at the moment. The image above is the interior of a recent Tata Nexon (2020). One which is mass-produced and has a good presence in the market. This is pretty much what most of the other mass-selling cars also have to offer. A central screen, physical buttons, knobs, and telematics on the steering wheel. A first glance at the image gives the right impression about the state of the art and the trend appears to be in the desired direction.

The entire industry is moving towards developing a more sophisticated infotainment system by squeezing in all possible features. It seems the intention is to replicate the experience of interacting with a smartphone. Eventually, the idea is to make a vehicle "an app on wheels".

The trend in the branding and logo designs of car companies illustrates this more than anything else.

Identity Trend Towards Digital  ‌

The old logos were fashioned with elements of chrome, gradients, and three-dimensional effects. The new logos are flat, clean, simple, reduced to bare essentials, and flexible over various platforms. This is a trait expected out of icons and logos on a phone.

This trend depicts the motivation behind companies to have their brand identity flexible over physical form as well as digital. That being said the infotainment system is at the centre of it all.

Too digital, too fast? (...of course, there are downsides)

As far as interaction with the car is concerned, there is no doubt that digital interface is an inevitability. Currently, the physical interaction with buttons and knobs is only provided as secondary means to interact with the system. One might opine that we are still using physical buttons due to consumer inertia and complete removal of buttons might be too drastic for the consumer base to grasp. But there could be an underlying reason behind the presence of physical interaction and in fact, be a question of the safety of cars and passengers.

Among the lower-end and mid-segment budgets, the features and capabilities fall within the bracket of relevancy. For instance, a big-screen display for navigation? Yes. Climate control? Of course. All-access to media, news, and vehicle real-time data is pretty much the basic information that we need. As we move on to the higher-end vehicles the features and the interactions seem nothing less than an overloaded experience to the driver.

Physical buttons and knobs have a tactile feel and provide feedback that enables the driver to drive without having to pay attention to the device at hand. Irrespective of the years of driving experience a driver has, the demanding nature of a digital interface has put lives at risk. There has been a multitude of reports and studies of distraction caused by an infotainment system while driving. To interact with a screen a driver has to look at it and then act. This very action makes him/her lose attention on the road even if it's for a second. Studies have shown that a driver tends to lean towards a screen while operating it and unintentionally steers the vehicle off-course while he is at it.

Apart from this, the phone features provided in the car defeat the purpose of the traffic laws. To think of it, you can be fined if you are seen using your phone while driving but your infotainment system is loaded with all modes of communication and other entertainment goodies to keep you completely distracted.

It might seem like this can be avoided using purely voice-based commands but apparently, the results are just marginally better.

As far as the design of the system is concerned there are a few points worth looking into:

  1. Lack of Standardization: Since the incorporation of digital screens is still at a nascent stage in the industry, there are no well-defined standards or guidelines. Every company has its version of an infotainment system. Be it screen size, position, or features available.
  2. Information Architecture: It seems obvious that the layers of information to get a task done should be the lowest possible. But still, there are nested submenus and complicated navigation within the info system.
  3. Cluttered Interface: The number of items to interact on a screen has to reduce to bare essentials but it is not the case and the nature of the system itself cannot be reduced.

The conclusion is that the design intervention here is not justifiable and the state of the art is blurry and ill-defined.

Smart Car Experience

Imagine this scenario...

You are done with a hard day's work. It was a hectic but accomplished day. You are about to head back home. It is a 40 minutes ride and the traffic is predicted to be usual. You'd like to get some coffee on the way but are half-minded about it due to the traffic and the detour. While you are signing off you press a button on the phone and the rest of the activities are taken care of by an app and the car.

An AI assistant could potentially direct the delivery of the coffee to the car and all the verifications and safety measures can be taken by using cameras for visuals and credentials. It could be delivered hot straight to the trunk of your car for you to pick it up as soon as you approach your car. And you as are at it, your driving assistant has air-conditioned the cabin according to your preferences and to help you relax plays what you want to hear.

A car is as much a temporary living space as a means of transportation. Perhaps mimicking a smartphone is not the design direction to be considered in the first place. If we are to go completely digital inside the cabin it has to replicate the interactions done inside the living space. A car needs to become a personal assistant like a home pod or google home rather than just take orders after boarding the vehicle. Just like how the temperature and mood lighting inside my room is adjusted before I set foot, the intelligence inside the car needs to be able to do the same.

The goal is to try and reduce as much interaction as possible and provide a seamless experience.

The intelligence in the car detects all the preferences and tasks through my profiles on my smartphone and does what's necessary. Attending to the comfort needs inside the car would only be a trivial function of the system. The interventions possible with this automated system could range from ordering food, detecting driving patterns and ensuring safety, engaging in conversation on long rides to keep the driver from dozing off, etc. In the end, it's all about going from point A to point B. The technological interventions, no matter how advanced, have to be non-interfering with my primary objective of driving and paying attention to the road.

With upcoming cars having in-built internet connectivity, a smarter car experience encompassing safety, information, and entertainment are bound to be a reality.

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