User Experience (UX) May Drive the Future of Automotive Design

January 27, 2021

User Experience (UX) May Drive the Future of Automotive Design

User Experience (or UX for short) focuses on design implementation for products or features that are user-friendly, easy, and useful for the consumer. The term is fairly self-explanatory; that is, technology or features geared towards UX or focused on UX enhance the ‘user experience.’ These features are easy to navigate, never cumbersome.

UX may drive the future of automotive design as more consumers (and drivers) look for features that enhance the driving experience and also provide on-the-road resources and solutions. These specialized features will likely offer sleek designs and easy-to-navigate functions.

But the definition of UX design can vary. And this definition may include thoughts on what UX should offer the consumer…or user.

The site User Testing offered up many different takes on what exactly UX means to different professionals in the industry.  For example, Jason Ogle, who hosts the User Defenders podcast, offered this take for the site: “UX Design is an empathically-driven practice crafted to solve human and business problems, and remove obstacles and friction from a user’s desired goals—hopefully delivering delight in the process.”

However, Martyn Reding, Virgin Atlantic’s head of digital experience, offered a more detailed take on the meaning of UX. According to Reding, User experience design is the culmination of content, research, design and strategy and its effect on the delivery, selling and use of a digital product or service.

In many instances, a user experience happens by the incidental smashing together of code and assumptions about people, so I think the distinction is in brands that recognize the value of a carefully crafted digital experience. In many ways, it is the fulfillment of a brand’s promise and recognition that how customers feel has a huge commercial impact.”

User Experience (UX) May Drive the Future of Automotive Design

What UX Means for Automotive

No matter how an expert or industry professional defines UX, it’s meaning and place within automotive has been taking hold for years. Drivers have seen a technological evolution in their vehicles, and how they interact with their car’s features.

Years ago, the speedometer and all information on the dashboard were very basic. As technology advanced, these gauges went from numbers with a physical hand to denote readings and car data (think speed or gas volume) to digital in presentation. Suddenly, all the data began to appear as computerized information.

The dashboard wasn’t just limited to one set of gauges and data points. As the dashboard and information systems of cars advanced with the computer age, digitization started to drive the data center. Drivers could actually switch the information that was visible on their dashboard. Now they could review information on tire pressure, mileage, fuel efficiency, and other mechanical specs.

The user experience for early models of these new driving data centers likely was not very user friendly.  Even today, some drivers might not like the navigation of the car’s information system; access to new data or a different screen on the dashboard may be accessible by turning a knob.

UX and Gadget Compatibility

Heightening user experience on the road meant integrating other forms of technology within the vehicle. As smartphones became mainstream, the user’s dependency on them likely influenced UX designs for the automotive sector.

Drivers were taking their phones on the road, but this need to bring the phone on a drive became entangled with devastating statistics. Distracted driving has often been a concern; any action that takes the eyes or attention from the road can be dangerous. Changing a radio station, turning to correct a child in the back seat, fiddling with temperature controls or even eating could possibly lead to driving inattentively.

However, a phone on the road and its connectivity to texts and calls perhaps proved too tempting for some drivers to resist while driving. Texting and driving stories served as sobering reminders on how a gadget can prove to be a dangerous and life-altering distraction in the car. Public service announcements were launched warning of these distractions. In 2018, more than 2,800 individuals were killed because of distracted driving.

Smartphones continued to follow drivers into the car, however. Many drivers rely on their phones in case of roadside emergencies. Perhaps the concern related to these gadgets and their misuse on the road prompted changes in UX designs within the vehicle.

As the reliance on smartphones increased, UX within the vehicle evolved to accommodate these devices. Today’s newer vehicles allow for smartphones to connect to the car. The user experience is now hands-free, which, hopefully, reduces distraction. Phone calls can utilize the car’s speakers and music can stream, too.

Need to send a message? There’s no need to even touch the phone while driving. Just give voice commands and dictate the text. Even map functions from the phone can be displayed on a screen within the car.

UX Beyond Entertainment

While smartphone compatibility simplifies and eases the driving experiences, today’s vehicles feature many more examples of UX throughout the automobile. Safety features like a backup camera are another example of UX on the road.

Cameras—front and rear—aid the driver in parking and navigation. In the past, backing up meant looking over your shoulder…and hoping nothing was in the blind spots. Now cameras show the driver everything, which may reduce accidents and even little fender benders. There is no guessing about the turning radius and if the front end has safely cleared the car parked alongside. In this way, augmented reality has enhanced UX.

Another safety example? Automatic braking. Many cars now stop automatically when something is detected that could cause an accident. About to back into a trash can? The car knows. This smart feature could freak out drivers when they first experience it, but the safety implications are far-reaching.

UX Outside of the Vehicle

The automotive industry embraces UX in its sales initiatives, too. During Covid, sales for many industries—retail and even automotive—moved online. To better serve consumers, companies likely tailored their site and their sales tools by improving user experience.

The automotive industry implemented virtual user experiences. These included virtual showrooms that allowed shoppers to preview vehicles, change paint hues, and also peek at the interior. Some dealerships even offered virtual test drives; potential buyers could request a vehicle that would be delivered to their home for the test drive. For extra convenience, loan approvals also may have been offered online.

During Covid, manufacturers also might have used virtual or augmented reality to enhance UX, too. For example, Lamborghini previewed its new Huracan EVO RWD Spyder via a unique augmented reality experience that allowed users to drop the vehicle into any real life environment. Users could then walk around the automobile and examine its features…in the comfort of their home!

User Experience (UX) May Drive the Future of Automotive Design

UX of the Future

The ultimate user experience features in automotive are right around the bend. In the not-so-distant future, UX will go AI. Self-driving cars are on the horizon. Not only are manufacturers like Tesla moving this technology forward, but the tech giants—Google, Apple, Amazon, and even Microsoft—also may be in the driver’s seat.

When UX is taken to the extreme, perhaps it becomes so autonomous and intelligent that users don’t even have to think about its significance. Self-driving vehicles will take drivers on a journey of leisure. There will be no worries about the next left turn, parking, or even navigating to a new destination. The journey will be automated.

These cars—especially those whose models might be linked to a tech company—also might integrate other unique UX details. These features would go far beyond what we know now in modern vehicles. Perhaps the self-driving cars of the future feature avatars to drive us. Virtual assistants could be integrated into the vehicle, too.

Many new cars feature upgraded options like television screens in the back seat. What if every seat in the vehicle had a digitized entertainment station? Perhaps these stations also include their own unique personal assistant. Could kids have a kid-friendly AI assistant? Maybe avatars/assistants are build-your-own models. Every seat includes a customized assistant for the journey!

What if the phone became remotely linked to the car? Perhaps the driver could leave the phone at home, but all the data would still appear in the car’s system. Including contacts and other information. The physical phone could be a relic of the past.

Self-driving cars would need to feature advanced safety systems that are far beyond what current cars possess. Any car that drives without a human—using only the computer—would need to understand every feature of the road, every rule, and make split-second navigation decisions to ensure safety. But these cars also would need to sense any upcoming obstacle.

Cars are already being developed with these types of intelligent UX offerings. Nissan, for example, is working on its Invisible-to-Visible technology; one of the features includes sensors to detect upcoming obstacles (like pedestrians).Today’s vehicles integrate UX features that enhance the driving experience. Digitized dashboards create an advanced understanding of the vehicle diagnostics, and touchscreen entertainment hubs sync with phones to stream music and enhance communication options. Safety UX designs in vehicles today include augmented reality cameras that show the real-world environment and ease parking and navigation. The future, however, may offer the full UX design—the self-driving vehicle. The power of AI will provide for a hands-off driving experience that could turn the road into an entertainment and leisure space for passengers.