Drivers at a loss with modern car control systems
Thomas Geiger | July 22, 2003
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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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