Conflicting Approaches To Car Infotainment System Design

No, they’re not all created equal!
Some manufacturers want you to control all in-car functions via huge touchscreens. However, a recent experience with a new Acura RDX crossover SUV reminded us once again that the jury is still out on the best approach to infotainment system design. Acura wants you to access and control the screen via a special controller via their True TouchPad Interface, instead of touching the screen. If you’ve been thinking everybody is moving towards touchscreens and controller-based infotainment systems are on the way out, think again.
In an Acura with True TouchPad Interface, the infotainment screen’s surface is mimicked by a touchpad on the centre console. Your finger’s position on the touchpad corresponds to the same position on the screen. The idea is to manipulate the touchpad with one hand while following the cursor on the screen. You have to drag your finger across the pad and click before lifting it, otherwise, the cursor position resets. It takes time to get used to and even then, we failed to be convinced of its benefits if any.

The Market Leaders Use Touchscreens

Time will tell what will become of controller-based infotainment systems, but the industry seems to be converging on touchscreen technology and, tellingly, none of the most highly rated infotainment systems under review below are controller-based only. An infotainment system can make or break your in-car experience and should be one of the things you try out extensively on your test drive before you buy a car. The time when cars were assessed according to MSRP, engine size, gas mileage, and cargo space alone, is over. Vehicles are increasingly judged on which has the best infotainment system.

Here is a quick rundown of some of the most notable market leaders:

  • iDrive – BMW. BMW was among the first brands to offer in-car entertainment and iDrive has matured from one of the worst to one of the best. Dual inputs are accepted – tapping the screen or using a rotary controller – and the submenus are logical. Graphics are crisp and the system is now very user-friendly. BMW has offered Apple CarPlay for a while, but has been slow with Android Auto, only launching it in 2021 with iDrive 7. iDrive 8, the next iteration, will add a large curved display, enhanced voice recognition, and even more interaction options.
  • MMI – Audi. Similar to iDrive, MMI offers touchscreen input and a rotary controller. Some models even offer a touchpad that can recognize handwriting. When integrated with Audi’s ‘Virtual Cockpit’ digital gauge cluster, MMI is even better, with the gauge cluster able to display Google Maps satellite images. Many display configurations are also possible. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are offered and newer MMI-equipped top-end Audis have dual displays.
  • MBUX – Mercedes. Debuting on the Mercedes A-Class, MBUX has been criticized for offering too many ways to get too many things done and it can be a bit overwhelming at first with its huge dual screens, but drivers soon learn their preferred methods and having control via the touchscreen, touchpad, or buttons is certainly useful and covers all bases. MBUX’s voice recognition is useful, if too easy to activate accidentally. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard.
  • Uconnect – Chrysler. Uconnect is touchscreen-based, but it’s one of the best systems out there. It features in one guise or another in all Fiat and Chrysler products and screen sizes vary enormously, from five to 12 inches. It’s responsive and logical, and the graphics are crisp. It is fully featured and can be expanded, such as incorporating the ‘Performance Pages’ data in Dodge’s muscle cars, as well as extending to the Chrysler Pacifica’s entertainment system for the rear seats. Naturally, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are included.
  • Sync 3 – Ford. The days of the terrible old MyFord Touch system are behind us and the latest Sync system (now in its fourth generation in the Mustang Mach-E) is among the market leaders. The touchscreen is clear and responsive, but inputs can also be made via voice commands. Functionality includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and available 4G Wi-Fi hotspot, and Amazon Alexa. Sync 4 offers controller and touchscreen inputs.
  • Tesla’s vertically integrated approach means their software and hardware work together seamlessly and its intuitive interface has earned it very high ratings among users in the USA, even if they are doing away with virtually all buttons, which some people still don’t like. Still, the screens are enormous and clear and there is endless functionality, even including games. Teslas sync with smartphones but don’t use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. You access phone functions such as making calls via the Phone app. As for the rest, the infotainment system already contains what you need, such as navigation, without the help of your phone. The Tesla system offers access to music apps such as Spotify too, via your smartphone.
The Market Leaders Use Touchscreens
The Market Leaders Use Touchscreens

Pros and Cons of a Touchscreen System

Of course, there are pros and cons to touchscreens, in comparison to the old button-heavy approach.

Pros:

  • They mimic our smartphones, which we are already used to
  • They reduce the button count for the increasing amount of in-car tech
  • They can be updated and modernized via over-the-air software updates
  • We need navigation, a backup camera, and smartphone mirroring displays anyway, so why not integrate everything into the same touchscreen?
  • They save development cost in terms of interior design

Cons:

  • You have to take your eyes off the road to locate functions that you could have located by feel if they were buttons
  • It can be overdone, such as complicating simple functions like finding temperature controls or audio settings buried three menus deep
  • Touchscreens and media control units can pick up fingerprints really easily and look dirty when they aren’t.
Car infotainment sytems
Car infotainment sytems

Conclusion – The Perfect Compromise

With the evolution of technology and the commonality of smartphones, in-car screens are here to stay. And as long as automakers can jazz up vehicle interiors by combining and controlling functions on a central touchscreen display, they will continue to do it. What we have learned is that the best systems offer a combination of ways to get things done, such as the systems reviewed above – that is, controllers as well as the touchscreen. Honda, Mazda, and Lexus will have to admit that not all infotainment functions can be controlled easily and safely using remote controllers only. It’s probably just a matter of time before all automakers use touchscreens.

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