Should There Be A Standard User Interface For Cars?S

By now, most of you realize that I'm an idea man. My mind takes the nutrient-rich paste editor Hardigree euphemistically calls "food" when he shoves it into my work-pod, and turns it into pure, unadulterated ideas. Of course, 90% of the resulting ideas are total crap, and of the remaining 10%, 90% of those are ideas for pickup lines that could have worked on Dolly Madison (like: Hey, baby, check it out, my watch has no hands.)

But that last 1%— those are ideas I have to make driving and cars better for everyone. Like the idea I just had that it's high time that car controls (and the underlying systems) had some real standards.

Don't get me wrong, I know there's already a number of official and unofficial standards in place — pedal location, use of a wheel for steering, turn indicator stalk location — but cars are getting more and more complex, and in some ways it's pretty surprising this hasn't already happened.

And that's just standards for the things we actually interact with; industry-wide standards for the fundamental systems that make up a car's brains could prove very useful as well.

Let me explain; there'll still be plenty of time to call me an idiot:

1. Common Controls

Really, we're just about at a standard for these, but not quite. It's being so close but not quite there that makes this category so annoying. Since I drive a good number of different cars as part of my work, I encounter many, many different dashboard and control layouts. It's not really a big deal to adapt to a new car's controls, but it's not entirely seamless, either.

For example, I'll sometimes drive off in an unfamiliar car, and a minute or so into my trip realize I need to defrost/defog the rear window. So I can, you know, see. This particular act is almost always confounding — the rear window defogger/defroster is by far the most randomly placed control in all of motordom. Sometimes it's snuggled up with the HVAC controls, all indistinguishable from the windshield defogger, with its magic rising snakes icon. Sometimes it's over on the left, near where the mirror controls sometimes are, sometimes it's stuck on the center console, and I've even owned a car where it was an unmarked switch under the dash. Nobody has any idea where to put the damn thing. From what I can tell, where they end up placing it seems to be dictated by wherever the guy who realized they forgot it slapped it on.

This isn't the end of the world, but it's a pain. And, potentially dangerous, since it directly affects the driver's ability to see around themselves. It's also unnecessary — this is a feature that has been on cars since the late '60s. You'd think 50 years or so would be plenty of time to have everyone agree where to stick it.

Should There Be A Standard User Interface For Cars?S

And that's just one control; aside from locked-down standards (pedals, indicator switch, wheel, manual shift pattern basics) almost everything else can vary wildly. Some variants are company-wide (Japanese firms tend to prefer light controls on a stalk-end, Germans seem to prefer dash controls) while some (mirror controls, windows, locks, etc.) vary wildly from car-to-car.

The question is, why doesn't everyone agree to where the basic controls (which should include basic radio and HVAC controls) should be? It's not like all these companies are like Citröen in the '60s, trying out innovative and new instrument panel designs— it's almost always the same basic methods, with just the locations frustratingly mixed around. Does anyone like power window controls in between the seats?

I don't want to stifle innovation, and I certainly don't want a bunch of boring dashboards that look the same. There's still plenty that can be done to give a car character even if the A/C controls, the wipers, the seat adjustment controls are all in essentially the same place. Distinctive dashes like the Mini's dinner-plate sized gauge cluster are still fine, as long as anyone can hop in the car and know where to find almost everything without hunting around.

2. Touch-screen and menu controls

Of course, physical controls are dying off as it is, and large, menu-driven touch panels are taking over. Even more so than basic car controls, these frequently obtuse menu systems would greatly benefit from some across-the-board standardizations.

First, I'd propose an easy-to-access (hardware home button?) or default screen that has the most basic controls, arranged according to the common controls physical standard I'm suggesting above, whatever that turns out to be. The screen should display basic climate control and audio functions, as well as anything else not available in physical button form, conforming to a general layout as much as possible. This way, anyone used to any car can get in and be able to control the most common functions.

More advanced features that aren't on every car are still available, but are accessible via a known, established, and standard menu hierarchy. No more frustratedly hunting through menus looking for where to pair your bluetooth phone— you learn it once for your car, and it's in the same location everywhere. Design traits can vary wildly, but the fundamental hierarchy will be known to us all.

And while we're at it, we may as well standardize navigation system UI, which in my experience has seemed to have been designed by a machine who's only understanding about how human brains work is a partially-downloaded copy of Joseph Heller's Catch-22. There's so many novel, awful variations on "frustrating" I've encountered on nav systems.

Should There Be A Standard User Interface For Cars?S

Why do so many shun the QWERTY layout in favor of an alphabetical layout? Alphabetical layout, a keyboard layout normally found on kid's toy laptops and absolutely nowhere else, ever? Did they focus-group test keyboard layouts with samples only of entirely fictitious people who never owned a goddamn computer in all their fictional lives? Is there a reason I'm missing? Were people typing too fast in the nav system and jamming up all the complex mechanical arms that make up the mechanism of exactly zero navigation systems?

And, why is the default entry process for an address the exact fucking opposite of the way any actual human being conceives an address? You know how you normally think of an address, like 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC USA? Wouldn't it be so much better to enter it, you know, totally backwards? Most systems ask for city, then street, then address number, in precisely the inverse of how we've been trained since zygotes to think of it. I'm pretty sure the car's computer can figure out a normal-format address. Hell, my old Apple II copy of Zork could figure out when I typed that I wanted to look north and light a lamp while conducting an inventory.

I get that the reverse approach is used to narrow down street name databases and help find correct street numbers. Occasionally, when you don't really know the address, this can be useful. But most of the time, you know the address, and the nav can certainly parse a normal address format in reverse to achieve the same effect. Your phone manages to do it just fine. So, I think an option for normal-format addresses makes sense.

It's time to standardize nav system destination entry, already. Ideally, standardize it across phones, cars, everything. Why not?

3. Your Data

I recently talked to you about the coming age (that's already come) of black boxes recording all kinds of things in your car. Since it's been established that you, gentle car owner, own that data the boîte noir is so scrupulously recording, you should be able to easily migrate it from one car to another, if you choose.

At this very moment, there may not seem like there's many reasons to do that, but in the future this could become a big deal. That data can define who you are as a driver, from both a safety perspective and in terms of driving style.

Currently, the black box data is almost exclusively for accident reporting and the like; but in the future, your car may adjust its performance and handling characteristics based on your own personal driving style. For years we've adapted to our cars — I think the day is coming when certain performance-targeted cars may start adapting to us, and that could be a great reason you'd want your driving profile to be portable.

Should There Be A Standard User Interface For Cars?S

Say your car eventually learns that you tend to accelerate heavily into turns. You change from a front-engine, rear driver to a mid-rear car, and transfer your data. This will give the car the information it needs to help keep you on the road and not oversteer into a forest, helping you keep as much of that power focused on moving you as possible. It'll be safer and faster.

If you want to learn it the old way, you could have the option to turn it off, or you could always drive a vintage car. It's still up to you. But think of it if you were the car: why wouldn't you want to know about how your new driver likes to drive?

Unless you're like me, and you don't want cars refusing to let you in because they figured out what an idiot I am.

Aside from that, there's also the more commonplace data of your preprogrammed radio stations, preferred temperature settings, seat position distance from the wheel and pedals, mirror positions, etc. Wouldn't it be great to be able to transfer these preferences easily to any car you decided to drive? A standardized data format could make this possible.

4. Platform updating and choice

You know how you tend to replace your phone almost yearly and your car almost decadely? You may have noticed that this means that your phone keeps up with the march of technology while your car stays rooted in the year it was made. But this may not have to be the case.

By coming up with some sort of reference hardware specification for car computing systems (perhaps something ARM-based like all these compu-phones and, likely, what's already being used) operating systems can be developed that can span across car makes and models. Users could choose what they preferred, much like they can choose between iOS and Android, though for cars a stricter common standard for data and the basic UI controls, like I mentioned above there, would need to be in place.

Software updates could keep a car's in-dash systems more in sync with the times, and, if things are well-designed, perhaps even hardware upgrades to the car's systems could be easy and possible.

All this raises the question as to why not just use the powerful little computers we all carry with us at all times, anyway? It would be an elegant solution, but the reality is there's just too many times you can end up in your car with your phone lost, stolen, broken, forgotten, or any number of other reasons that shouldn't cripple your car.

I think there's lots of reasons to standardize control locations, basic functions, menus, and data for cars. But, as always, I'm curious to hear everyone's opinion, so, you know, have at it.