In-car tech: Help or hindrance?

May 17th, 2010 in .Blogs .Tech
Nick Holland

Nvidia announced in January that it had partnered with Audi to put its Tegra chip into Audi’s new “3G MMI” system that will be introduced in its upcoming 2011 A8. Nvidia claims this is all a part of improving driver aids and overall safety, by allowing voice control so your hands never need leave the wheel, and extra 3D wizardry that makes distinguishing visual features at a quick glance of the screen much easier.

Obviously that’s what Nvidia would like us to think as we coo over its digital splendour, but that’s not counting the many functions already integrated into cars: GPS, Bluetooth phone calls, music, radio and sometimes even TV or video, there’s a lot going on in addition to us actually driving the vehicle. How many people have actually used voice control in a car at high speed and actually had to shout several times over the wind noise? It’s not uncommon, I would imagine.

Things like windshield HUDs (head up displays) showing data like speed and fuel level all in your eyeview are certainly examples of positive technology though. Many people will constantly look down in an average speed check zone because they are more concerned about being fined than other peoples safety, so keeping your eyes back on the road is obviously a bonus.

It could be argued that the multimedia things are mostly distracting. Keeping the kids quiet with LCD screens in the headrests is all well and good, but unless they are wearing headphones are you going to listen and think about the movie behind you or focus on that boring freeway driving instead? Again, the very latest in-car tech comes to the rescue because in some cars the audio can be zoned and separated between front and back, left and right, so while the kids are watching Up! you can be listening to your tunes in the front. This setup is not that widespread though, and instead of being a standard feature for safety, it’s an additional one to upsell you.

Obviously, engine management technology is an essential advantage in any modern vehicle that will only get even more important as electrical or hybrid cars become more available. Improvements in performance and less fuel use in either tuning the engine through different modes or turning it off when you’re sitting idle, benefit both our pockets and the environment.

Ultimately, no matter how powerful your in-car hardware is though, it’s the interface and ease of use that makes it most useful and most appealing. To date, I can’t ever remember seeing a car that uses a touchscreen such as we have in our smartphones, and that seems oddly disturbing. The standard in-car control method is often twiddle-stick, nipple or rotating knob (Ooo er!) that’s all about as easy to use as wiggling a ball of butter between your fingers. What happened to simple touchpads that laptops have used for years?

In addition, why are most in-car screens so pathetically small? Laptops with reasonable sized LCD screens are never that expensive, and obviously a whole car costs considerably more so it’s not like an inconsiderable ask. A larger screen would offer multitasking/multi-viewing: with the right layout, any glance can gather more information at once from several items sharing the screen real estate, just like looking at the multitude of dials directly behind the wheel in front of you is no more distracting.

There is evidently a fine line that’s hard to manage, and to some extent governments have stepped in with regulation, with laws in several countries requiring things like a hands-free cell phone kit while driving. People will often claim they are “better drivers than most” and can handle it; well, no one thinks they are a bad driver, and that only adds to the problem. With the ever more connected world via 3G or WiMAX, car tech companies should not focus on selling you MORE, but selling you BETTER, more appropriate products that fundamentally integrate into the natural driving experience.

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