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Bottom-up HMI innovation

Plato said that necessity is the mother of invention. And in the world of in-car technology and HMI, it is at the bottom of the pile (where cost constraints are highest) where we’re seeing the greatest invention right now. Recent drives in two latest city cars – the Peugeot 108 and Renault Twingo – have made us ask if bottom-up innovation provides some answers to the current issues in automotive HMI. There isn’t any great alchemy at work here. But the Peugeot and Renault systems work for three fundamental reasons:
- limited feature set
- simple on-screen design
- use of third-party add-ons

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These cars aren’t crammed full of technology. Instead, what’s fascinating is that this apparent reduction in features barely impacts on utility. Both cars will try hard to stop you having a crash and keep you warm or cool. In both cars there was a digital radio fitted, I could stream (and control through their interfaces) music from iTunes and Spotify, and make and receive phone calls. 

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Spend time in the cheapest cars available today, and what you realise is that much of the complexity and feature set added into expensive cars actually provides little functional or emotional benefit. It’s a five-percent ‘nice to have’ or ‘wow’ style feature, that looks impressive in the showroom but then you never use out on the road.

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The net result of this simple approach is very basic on-screen menus, with the two car’s approaches being quite divergent. Peugeot (along with its Aygo and C1 sister cars) gives you a 7-inch touchscreen. Renault (in the Twingo we drove) provides a basic set of buttons for the in-car radio, and an in-dash mobile phone holder. Once Bluetooth-connected, your phone then becomes the primary interface – with four big tile buttons on the home screen, for phone, media, car, and navigation running through Renault R & Go. 

With both systems, the lack of on-screen clutter makes nearly every screen a quick and simple read –pressing a massive button will get you where you need to go within the system. Use either for a week and you conclude nearly all on-screen interfaces would be better with fewer, simpler buttons and ultimately ‘less’ on the screen.

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To offer the user ‘more’, both brands use digital, third party solutions. The numbers of new cars being purchased each year makes creating apps for the automotive space an unappetising proposition for many developers. Nonetheless, what the apps are being used for here is to add functionality into the car in an updateable and more importantly affordable way.

Want a rev counter in the Twingo? You can pull one up on the screen of your smartphone. Want to add full navigation into your 108? Then simply use Peugeot’s AppinCar and you’ve a choice of two full navigation apps for less than €100. 

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In the last generation cars of either car, these options weren’t available at all or were optional extras costing several hundred Euros and needed to be specified at the initial point of purchase. The new solutions mean that additional functions can be bought – and then updated – at any point in the car’s life.

Both system are far from perfect – there is still much that could be improved in their on-screen graphics and icon design. But they do offer an appealing mix of customer flexibility while reducing cost and both create the ability to flexibly upgrade and update throughout the car’s life.

Automotive technology has always worked in a ‘top-down’ manner, with small cars last to receive safety or technological innovations. But comparing these solutions to the integrated systems employed by premium manufacturers suggests that, with automotive HMI, innovation is actually occurring from the bottom upward.