Commentary

The Convergence Transportation Electronics Association conference always is full of talk about breakthroughs, but the intense three days of 2008’s conference last month in Detroit revealed a very different type of breakthrough made by the automotive electronics community.

This breakthrough is the kind you might have on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

In one exhausting 72-hour period full of exhilarating technology and mind-numbing acronyms, it became apparent that more than 6,000 very smart engineers were acknowledging the existence of Joe the Consumer (JTC).

More importantly, they were agreeing this slightly dense Everyman deserves to play a major role in the development of future automotive electronic systems. Bingo.

Not that they would put the schlub in charge of anything important, nothing like that. But engineers now agree that JTC has to be able to operate electronic systems easily and intuitively, or at least without getting so frustrated with the human/machine interface that he pops blood vessels in his head.

They realize now that, no matter how brilliantly designed an HMI may be, JTC does not want to spend an hour pouring over an owner’s manual to understand the fundamental logic of how it works.

JTC is a simple guy. He wants to push a button and make something happen, like starting the car or turning on the radio. He doesn’t want a barometric pressure reading or a Spanish lesson while he’s doing it.In other words, JTC does not always see more electronic features as added value. Especially when the add-ons make operation of the original features, such as turning on heated seats, more complicated.Designers must enhance the user-friendliness and reliability of the HMIs to eliminate distraction, Ralph Bruder, of Germany’s Darmstadt University of Technology says at Convergence. “Sometimes, assistance features can confuse drivers even more, leading to information overload,” Bruder says.

The evidence the message truly has sunk in can be seen in BMW’s new iDrive HMI, shown off at Convergence and reborn on the '09 3-Series and 7-Series.

Once one of the most relentlessly criticized devices ever created, the new iDrive now arguably is the best HMI available.

The key to the new system is it features seven separate buttons and/or rocker switches to provide fast and direct access to core functions and menu prompts. That means JTC no longer feels like a rat trapped in an electronic maze when he jogs the iDrive knob in the wrong direction while trying to change his radio station presets.

Entering information such as street and city names for navigation directions also is simpler. On this latest version of iDrive, BMW and its suppliers clearly spent quality time with JTC during development.

The user-friendliness of the HMI – not the number of functions or features – is where the real competitive advantage lies, engineers now agree.

That could lead to incorporating technology into the HMI that responds to gestures, rather than touch or speech, says Bruder. It’s most notable application is the Wii wireless controller from video game maker Nintendo.

JTC likes that idea, as long as he can edit out some of the gestures he makes while driving.