A Breakdown on Automotive UX: Taking User Experiences to The Next Level

UX… you might’ve encountered this term often. UX here, UX there. But what does user experience really mean in simple words? As per the Nielsen Norman Group, which designers and engineers often consider as the go-to consultancy firm for UX, 

The main goal of user experience (UX) is creating and improving people's experiences in their everyday life and work. Specifically, UX efforts often focus on improving digital products and services.

Thus, we can say the foundational tenets of user experience are to meet the customer's exact needs with minimal fuss and disruptions. With a grasp of UX, let's clarify what UI is in simple terms, as both of them are used in tandem. UI, or user interface, is a product's form. Better known as product cosmetics, it’s the product's look, feel, and interactivity.

The Significance of Automotive UX in Modern Vehicles

The unstoppable rise of digitization has equipped organizations across various sectors. Their aspirations of creating exceptional user experiences for digital products are now within arm’s reach. Factually, the automotive industry is no different. The automobile industry is transforming globally - from the convergence of physical and digital elements and electrification, connectivity, and self-driving tech to evolving ownership models. All this, coupled with evolving user needs, makes interior design and user experience (UX) pivotal factors in vehicle purchase choices.

Hence, automakers prioritise user experience (UX) when designing soon-to-be-launched vehicles. Traditionally, the competition within the automotive industry revolved around horsepower and acceleration. Today, the focus has shifted to sophisticated infotainment systems and highly connected internal vehicle functionalities. From Mercedes-Benz’s MBUX to BMW’s iDrive, every manufacturer is vying for your attention in a world where attention is a sparse resource.

This, fuelled by the emergence of Software Defined Vehicles (SDVs), speaks volumes of how software presence has surged in automobiles. An average new car boasts around 100 million lines of code. To make a surprising comparison, 

  • a Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet operates on approximately 25 million lines of code! 
  • Mercedes-Benz’s vision for its future is to become a software company. This underscores the gravity of the situation.

Possessing superior software that enhances exceptional UX now confers a competitive edge.

At the helm of this paradigm shift is the customer, more aptly called the user.

The Impact of User-Centric Design on The Driving Experience

But wait, what is user-centric design? It’s a broad term describing design processes in which end-users influence how a design takes shape. As more software is incorporated into the vehicle, the potential to tweak the driver’s experience as they like is more significant. With a tap of a few buttons on their infotainment display, the driver could alter the way their car performs. Moreover, such minimal clicks could tweak in-car experiences by changing how the digital cluster interacts as per their current mood.

For instance, look at the BMW Dee. Dee stands for Digital Emotional Experience, indicating the vehicle can portray unique emotions of happiness or excitement by demonstrating visual cues through different car parts. Owners even get the liberty to customize their car themes within seconds. All in all, this user-centric behaviour makes the driving experience more interactive than ever. 

Brief History of Automotive UX

We want to return to the classics. Let’s look at how this shift has been taking place.

Considerations When Designing Human-Machine Interactions

As per WHO, approximately 1.3 million people die in road accidents yearly. WHO states that one of the leading causes of this is distracted driving. In some scenarios, the Human Machine Interface (HMI) is the cause of this distraction. The HMIs produce a large amount of information. Sometimes, this information is complex—for example, a warning of a vehicle in a blind spot before a lane change. Sometimes, this complex information may demand immediate responses from the driver. By reading or listening, comprehending, and taking the suggested action – drivers are burdened with a rapid response to avoid a collision.  

Keeping this in mind, we’ll mention two key considerations extracted from this guidebook by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the USA for designing the interface between drivers and vehicles. We urge readers to review the resource for a deeper understanding of the points below.

  • Distraction

Driver distraction indicates a diversion from activities that are critical for safe driving. This distraction can be caused by a secondary task sharing the same resources needed for safe driving. 

The greater the extent to which an action shares the same resources with a driving activity, the higher the degree of incompatibility between the action and driving. Thus, there's more distraction.

  • Driver Workload

Workload is a psychological concept representing the proportion of a driver’s mental and physical capacity used to complete a task.

Primary driving tasks, such as controlling the vehicle, scanning for hazards, and navigating, all impose a workload on the driver. Not to forget, workload increases or decreases based on the driving conditions or the driver’s state, but it’s always present to some degree. For budding designers who’d prefer a career in automotive UX, we’ll speak from experience and highlight a fundamental difference between designing experiences for digital products and vehicles.

Importance of Touchscreens in Automotive UX Design

As per the IHS Markit, globally, the average size of a vehicle’s center display in 2018 was 7.7 inches and is set to grow to 8.4 inches by 2024. This ever-increasing reliance on touchscreens in cars is a controversial topic across the internet. People often leave negative comments on articles and YouTube videos whenever the media creates content on a new automobile product. Despite this, car manufacturers are determined to keep making bigger screens. This tells us that screens inside vehicles will remain popular for a while.

We’d like to explain why touchscreens are incredibly essential in modern automobiles.

As discussed, touchscreens in cars aren’t something new. We want to classify two new terms here, - BT and AT, which stand for Before Tesla and After Tesla. Since Tesla introduced the 17" touchscreen in the Model S, car manufacturers have strived for larger touchscreens. Nowadays, it's rare to find a car without one.

As per Casper, in his blog, The Turn Signal, he classifies interactions inside a vehicle into three types: 

  • Primary: They include all the functions directly related to driving and safety. Some examples include monitoring speed, turning on the indicators, and operating the windscreen wipers.
  • Secondary: The secondary interactions are actions that occur frequently but take only a short time to accomplish. These can be changing the music volume or cabin temperature or turning on the air conditioner. 
  • Tertiary: The tertiary interactions are the opposite of the secondary ones. They’re infrequent but more complex and take longer to accomplish. Some examples are inputting a destination in the navigation system or changing personal settings in the car.

In his blog, Casper takes the example of the VW Golf over its generations. He states that all these interactions have grown, specifically the tertiary aspects. He compares the tertiary interactions in first-generation Golf with the latest generation, and essentially, he mentions, “In first-generation Golf, you can only choose a radio station; today, there is an endless list of radio channels, streaming services, and podcast platforms. And that is just the media. Almost all cars have navigation systems, phone connections, and internet-connected apps.” 

Initially, all these interactions were controlled via indirect, physical controls. But over time, with each generation, the display grows in size, and the number of physical controls decreases.” This begs to precisely answer our question, “Why touchscreens?” The answer is simple. A lot of it relates to the increasing complexity of tertiary interactions. With each new generation, touch controls work better than indirect controls due to the growing number of interaction options. 

Here are two reasons why. The familiarity aspect is from the user’s POV, and the OTA updates aspect is from the manufacturer’s POV.

  • Familiarity

this law states that users spend most of their time using other digital products. Thus, they’d expect the same behaviour from your digital product. Instead of reinventing the wheel, (pun intended), why not use something in which a lot of research has already occurred? Automobile designers can adapt it to the context of users driving a vehicle, and design is all about context.

That makes sense, right? This ends up saving time and costs.

  • Over The Air (OTA) Updates

Let’s correlate Moore’s Law and the rate of technology change. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors doubles every two years on a semiconductor chip. By this justified historical trend, we can say that the software used to perform operations on a semiconductor chip also changes every two years. Now, the average lifecycle of a car is around 13 years. In a traditional sense, once the vehicle rolls off the assembly line, no more modifications are possible via the manufacturer to enhance their vehicle experience. But in today’s day and age of connected vehicles, manufacturers can push an Over The Air (OTA) update. This is fruitful for fixing glitches, and by updating visuals on the UI, cars adapt to modern expectations of comfort and premium user-friendliness.

Future Trends in Automotive UX

Let’s touch upon two future trends in automotive UX.

  • Mixed Reality and Augmented Reality

This means introducing a layer of digital functionality in the physical world - inside and outside the vehicle. The best examples of this stem from Audi’s sphere concepts.

As per Audi, “The word “sphere” in the name emphasizes that the inner space – the interior – will be granted heightened importance in the mobility of the future. The interior will become the foundation for design and technology, turning the vehicle into a sphere where the passengers can enjoy life and experiences while on the go – a third living space.” 

Their most recent concept, The Activesphere, takes the cake for this. The concept is equipped with AR-based features that make passengers’ lives easy.

  • Gesture-based Interactions (GBI)

At the start of the 21st century, the complexity of in-vehicle information systems (IVIS) had increased. Interacting with in-car controls required drivers to divert visual attention from the road to the dashboard. But now, manufacturers like BMW have already incorporated GBIs in their vehicles. 

What are gestures?

Gestures are considered a “nonverbal” form of communication. As per the Cambridge Dictionary, Gestures are “A movement of the hands, arms, or head, etc. to express an idea or feeling.” Remember, gestures aren’t new to interact with devices. For example, some water faucets allow us to wave our hands for water to flow. This is done to increase hygiene. As per a 2001 report by German researchers, experts concluded that in addition to increasing driver comfort, GBI is less visually demanding than Touch Based Interactions (TBI). Therefore, there’s a reduced risk of driver distraction.

As per a more recent study by seasoned automobile giants in Germany, research indicated that as compared to TBI, drivers using GBI performed fewer and shorter interface glances. From this, we can say that GBI works better for in-car controls for specific tasks like infotainment and navigation – which were usually done with TBI. 

Lastly, GBI allows for glance-free interactions. Previous GBI studies have suggested that drivers glance at the display less or don’t look at it at all when the display isn’t required for task completion. Such studies have also noted that glances occur in less critical driving situations.

Multiutility User Experience

In this era, where Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs) would soon be extinct, and electrification would take over, one emerging concern is long charging times.

In a conventional ICE car, you can top up your range to 400-1000 km in a few minutes by filling it with fossil fuel. However, there are currently some nuances in an electric vehicle. Their charging times may vary between 8 hours and 20 minutes depending upon the state of charge and the type of charger used. This brings about another set of challenges. What would users do to kill this time? 

Manufacturers like Mercedes did think of this setback and are now offering popular apps like TikTok, YouTube, Zoom, Angry Birds, etc., in their vehicles. These apps can currently be used only if the car is parked. Even better, passengers can also experience these apps as they, too, have a screen of their own.

The Rocky Road Ahead in Automotive UX

JD Power, an organization best known for its customer satisfaction surveys, conducted a study in the USA on owner satisfaction. They identified that built-in infotainment systems are a prime example of a technology not resonating with today’s buyers. Only 56% of owners preferred to use their vehicle’s built-in system to play audio, down from 70% in 2020.

You must also understand the three common uses of built-in systems:

  • Owners looking to make phone calls
  • Voice recognition
  • Navigation

Here is where it gets interesting. With less than half (45%, 37%, and 43%, respectively) of owners preferring to use their vehicle’s built-in system for these functions - this is alarming for automotive UX designers. However, per the same survey, models with Android Automotive OS (AAOS) and Google Automotive Services (GAS) score higher in the infotainment category than those without AAOS placements. Google Automotive Services refers to all the apps and services that come with the vehicle — also known as Google Built-in. The models with AAOS without GAS received the lowest scores for infotainment of the three categories.

This could mean two things:

  • Users want consistency between their phones, which they already use throughout the day, and the vehicles they drive.
  • Manufacturers should partner with companies like Google and Apple to provide the consistent experience users desire. Some manufacturers like Volvo, Ford, and GM have already stated the arrival of GAS for their upcoming vehicles. 

A Tip for Automobile UX Enthusiasts

Keep in mind, that the intent of designing experiences for vehicles shouldn’t be to increase the driver’s interaction with your solution. This stands true since manoeuvring the car is the primary task, and the rest is a distraction. Though it sounds counterintuitive, we must acknowledge that the driver is handling a vehicle weighing over a ton and capable of reaching speeds above 60 km/h. The last thing you want as a designer is for drivers to fiddle with their touchscreen during their ride.


The future of automobiles will bear a more remarkable resemblance to smartphones when compared to the traditional mechanical vehicles we use. They will evolve into connected devices on wheels, functioning within an intricate network of people, devices, and infrastructure. We envision that the digital experience offered by a vehicle - inside, around, and away from it - will be a differentiating factor shortly. This will only be amplified with changing ownership models and the rise of autonomous vehicles. This shift is exciting as it will shape the future of driving.

In a nutshell, automotive UX is in its nascent stages, but the potential is limitless.