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Drivers at a loss with modern car control systems

Thomas Geiger | July 22, 2003

Audi A8
MUNICH — Many a motorist is overwhelmed by the numerous knobs and switches from entertainment electronics to safety, comfort and other features that are standard in most modern cars.

Experts agree that it is time to call for a ceasefire "in the war of the switches" and that new instrumentation concepts are needed to keep it straight and simple.

A big change has already been inaugurated with the new generation of BMW 7-Series and the Audi A8. For the first time the manufacturers have merged several switches into one control element in the central dashboard.

The system works much like a computer mouse, guiding the user on the screen through several menus from navigation of the audio equipment to the onboard computer.

Other car manufacturers are expected to follow the trend if current design studies are anything to go by. BMW spokesman Jochen Mueller in Munich says the BMWs new iDrive system will in future bring together several functions.

For Audi the main challenge has been to make the controls useable intuitively. The main function can be called up with a switch.

"The advantage is that one can jump to several functions and always come back again to the same place in the menu structure," says Werner Hamberger who is responsible for Audi's MMI service concept.

But motorists will have to get used to operating several functions. The car supplier Siemens VDO Automotive is developing a multi-functional switch with an integrated handwriting recognition system.

"Instead of typing every letter into the display, the driver need only write single letters or syllables with his finger on the surface of the switch," according to VDO spokesman Enno Pflug.

Many Japanese producers offer a touchscreen used mainly for navigation. The system has several advantages because several control elements can be flexibly programmed. The disadvantage is that there is no "tactile feedback", according to Gerhard Mauter, responsible for the development of control elements at Audi.

"The driver does not know for sure whether the command has been accepted," Mauter says. The screen calls for much attention while driving the car, he criticises.

Motorists can also expect optical changes to vehicle information systems. Many producers in future are expected to work with digital displays that can be constantly varied. The Mercedes F 500 study works with visual information that is displayed through see-through mirrors so that the driver always has the latest information in the foreground.

However the old speedometer is likely to stay because the round shape with an arrow can be recognised much better than digital figures, according to Gerhard Mauter.

Apart from these control instrument changes, producers are also looking at separating car entertainment systems from the vehicle information systems. Siemens VDO is working on a screen for the front passenger integrated into the dashboard where the airbag is situated.

Science is meanwhile regarding all these car control systems with scepticism. "The car was once a sanctuary of uniform control systems. One could climb into a vehicle anyplace in the world and drive off without much of a problem," according to Professor Detlef Zuelke of the Centre of Human-Machine-Interaction of the Technical University of Kaiserslauten, Germany.

"The basic problem is that with all these knobs, switches and displays we have a human being sitting at the other end whose capabilities and limitations regarding to cognitive abilities have remained virtually the same for thousands of years," the professor says.

Already research is in progress on intelligent systems where the driver need not take a hand from the steering wheel, with voice recognition programmes recognising the command. But scientists are baffled by one problem: Research by Audi has shown that the human being is not keen at all in conversing with a machine. – Sapa-DPA

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