Quick Thoughts: The Car UI/UX Tragedy

Car interfaces remain awful more than 6 years after the iPhone was launched. This needs to change.

Traveling is an inseparable component of strategy consulting and so I find myself on the road almost every week. This lifestyle has a number of perks (both metaphorical and literal), but the one I find most interesting is the continuous exposure to multiple players in a given industry. At home, it’s easy to slip into a sort of ‘complacent patronage’ where you’re highly loyal to existing brand relationships and rarely venture outside them. However, being brand exclusive can be tough when you ‘live on the road’ due to the need balance individual schedules, locations and budgets. Simply put, I just don’t have the option of always being a “Starwood man” or “United kind of guy”. As a result, I’m routinely exposed to the different ways companies provide the same fundamental product or service. This is particularly true when it comes to cars.

Last year, Hertz and Avis tell me I rented close to one hundred vehicles. I’d guess this included more than 10 brands and at least 25 different models. With that in mind, I’ve become somewhat of a car UI/UX expert as I’m constantly figuring out new dashboard interfaces, setting up the audio/radio or achieving the perfect temperature.

What continues to astonish me is how awful these interfaces are. Here are a few from the 2013 Dodge Charger (my current rental):


Not only is 38 a bizarre maximum, it has only two divisible integers: 2 and 19 (both prime numbers). As such, the only methodical number a driver can turn the volume down to is 19 (50% of the maximum). There’s no 75%, 25%, 40% and so on. Just odd guesses.


This same principle was carried over to the audio equalizer, where max and min increase in 11.1111% intervals to +9 and -9. respectively Including 0 (neutral), this gives the driver 19 different levels. As with the volume, this isn’t a massive obstacle, but it’s a peculiar design decision given our base-10 numerical system and human numeracy.


The most confusing aspect of the UI is temperature control. Here you’ve no relative indicators (e.g. Levels 1 to 10, or even -9 to +9) or absolute indicators (72°, 75° or max=80°, min=65°). Instead, the user must simply guestimate what level of red-blue gives them the temperature they want. Interestingly, this view actually makes more sense for the equalizer, which is more significantly affected by minute changes (and is traditionally controlled by a slider).

Dodge’s Challenge

When I use UIs like the Challenger’s or Cadillac’s new CUE  system  (which is similar to the BlackBerry Storm’s press-in touchscreen), I have a hard time understanding how the design engineers made the decisions they did or believing that usability testing or focus groups took place.

While it’s true cars aren’t marketed around their interface (though some, including Cadillac, boast about the size of their touchscreen), they do market heavily around experiences – the driver’s in particular. Not focusing on a primary point of contact between the driver and their car – especially when it comes to personalization – is a mistake.

Apple has always argued that its platform should trigger emotional responses, such as “delight,” “surprise,” “love,” and “connection” for users. After all, the iPod wasn’t the only devices that played MP3s – nor is the iPhone the only smartphone with ‘an app for that’. Routinely engaging and “delighting” users means obsessing over every interaction. Interestingly, Apple has a history of flirting with car designs. In 2007, Steve Jobs was in discussion with VW for a potential “iCar”. While speaking at Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored conference earlier this year, Mickey Drexler (CEO of J. Crew, former CEO of Gap and current Apple Board Director) told the audience “Steve’s dream before he died was to design an iCar” and that the car industry was a “tragedy in America. Who is designing the cars?”

It’s too bad Jobs never got to cars. Had he, tonight’s drive to the airport would no doubt be quite different.