DEARBORN, MI – Simplification and integration are the next big challenges facing the industry in the rapidly proliferating field of human-machine interface technology, panelists at the 2014 WardsAuto Interiors Conference here say.

“There are a variety of components that make up the connected vehicle, and all have an HMI of some degree,” says Stephan Tarnutzer, chief operating officer of consultancy DGE. “HMIs are everywhere.”

What’s needed, he says, is to improve the way they all work together. Slow reaction times plaguing some systems must be solved, and it needs to be easier for consumers to connect to their car’s operating system with handheld devices. All this has to be accomplished without increasing driver distraction and costs.

“We see the car becoming a moving lounge,” agrees Jennifer Wahnschaff, in charge of instrumentation and HMI for supplier Continental. “So we’ll need a holistic HMI approach.”

Car buyers now equate quality with the HMI experience, so it is critical automakers get designs and functionality right, says Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director-J.D. Power.

Overall vehicle quality now is expected by consumers, he notes, citing the gap between the best and worst brands in his company’s annual satisfaction survey that has shrunk from 334 problems per 100 vehicles in 1987 to just 78 in 2012.

But car buyers still are not pleased with the performance of their navigation and infotainment systems, with complaints in those areas on the rise, VanNieuwkuyk says.

“The systems are becoming more complex,” he says. “There’s more value in them, but usability (is decreasing). Consumers are having issues interacting.”

Making it difficult to get it right is the rapid development cycle for consumer electronics, which evolve about every six months, compared with a 4-year product cycle for an average vehicle.

“That’s eight times the speed (of vehicle development),” points out Tim Yerdon, global director-innovation and design for supplier Visteon, noting the HMI sector represents a potential $30 billion revenue stream for the auto industry. “We have to be able to understand that spinning wheel, pick out what’s appropriate (from among new consumer-electronics technology) and integrate it properly.

“We’re trying to design mobility in a timeframe where we don’t even know what the technology will be,” he says, adding, “We have to protect our space in the automobile. Others (from outside the auto industry) want to take that over.”

VanNieuwkuyk says it is critical for suppliers and automakers to be perfectly aligned with each other and the market, if the industry is to solve the HMI puzzle for 2020 and beyond. It also helps if dealerships get the support and training needed to make sure car buyers understand and can operate their infotainment systems.

J.D. Power data indicates a big increase in customer satisfaction is achieved when dealers spend time explaining how infotainment devices work, and scores climb further when they spend at least 12 minutes going over operating procedures, he says.

A big roadblock today is the typical voice-activation system, VanNieuwkuyk says. Automakers increasingly are incorporating voice controls, and they are making spoken commands more intuitive. But even though buyers want such technology, they’ve had a bad experience, finding most systems on the market unreliable.

“Whoever makes this work will have a winning proposition,” he says.

Buyers also are “freaked out” about the potential for monitoring systems that would read eye and facial movements to determine if the driver is alert and focused where needed, VanNieuwkuyk says.

Automakers expect such technology to be a key feature that will limit driver distraction and help avoid collisions, and suppliers here say that while wary, car buyers will learn to appreciate the added safety these future systems will provide.

“Right now, the consumer says he doesn’t want monitoring,” Wahnschaff agrees. “But if you ask if he wants help avoiding a crash” he’s interested.

“Once people see the benefits, they will want to have it in their vehicle.”

In pointing to the HMI of 2020, panelists say head-up displays will be abundant and provide more information, including detailed navigation directions, augmented reality of the road ahead and warnings to the driver of potential impending collisions.

There also will be better voice-, gesture- and character-recognition systems used to control functions, and haptic feedback technology will assure drivers the HMI is doing exactly what they want it to do.

All the focus on HMI is changing the way interiors are designed, panelists say.

“It used to be that you designed the interior and then put the electronics in it,” Yerdon says. “The future is to design the electronics architecture and mold the plastics around it.

“We now have to look out to 2025 and design (an electronics) roadmap to be successful,” he adds. “It’s a heck of a challenge.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com