— The good, the bad, the ugly & everything in between
I like to drive as I find it soothing and gives me time to reflect and relax. There is a fine line between loving a car, liking it, or just about out-rightly hating it and the car’s infotainment system plays a big role in it.
When getting a car, most people check it’s technical specs, the torque, horse power, engine size, acceleration, handling etc, so when you get ready to drive a car, you are more or less prepared on what to expect when driving the car, but what most people cannot find any information is how comfortable would one feel when driving the car. How would one set the most appropriate temperature in the car to make one comfortable, play or change music when driving, or make or receive calls when driving. The car’s infotainment system is the brain of the car, and it is the only way for the driver to interact with the car to personalize it for his/her needs. What once started as merely the radio, today may contain all possible controls for the car, from a/c, heater, seat warmer, radio, cell phone connection, handsfree calling, rear camera, seat belt monitoring, child-safety locks, driver profile setup, navigation, messaging & sometimes even games. While we have trained ourselves to brake, accelerate and change gears without paying active attention to those tasks, we shouldn’t need to train ourselves with a car’s infotainment system’s controls.
I still remember the time when I had rented a Toyota Camry in 2016 and each time I drove the car, I came out cursing the infotainment system. It seemed like the infotainment system was designed by someone who never drove the car once it was installed. It had required me to install an app on my phone, pair it and then use my phone to direct the infotainment system, while driving. It had no support for voice controls, so I drove in perpetual fear of getting caught by the police. There was no intuitive way to play music and map/navigation was buggy & laggy. My experience was so bad that at one time I wanted to go back to Avis and get a different car. I will not go deeper into design choices of Toyota’s infotainment system as they did not seem to be investing much into its design. However when I was renting another car sometime later, I happened to rent a Mitsubishi and was pleasantly surprised that it offered support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Once I paired my phone, it just worked seamlessly. It wasn’t a great or memorable experience, but it was consistent and met expectations. So Toyota’s poorly designed infotainment system seems to have no excuse. This experience however shaped me to not only pay attention to the designs of other infotainment systems & why companies like Apple & Google have invested heavily to design CarPlay & Android Auto.
For comparing a great infotainment design with a poorly designed one, I wanted to pick two car companies that offer cars in a similar luxury segment. The reasoning being that in order to make a luxury car, where they expect a customer to shell out 80 to 100 grand, I would expect them to have paid more attention to every aspect of the design of the car. So, just like the curves of the car’s body, the shape, the tail-lights etc are designed to make a statement, similarly, I would expect that the car infotainment system is designed to reflect the auto maker’s value proposition to the owner and how much the company values a customer’s overall satisfaction with the car.
During my research three years ago, I took test drives of all possible cars, and these two stood out in stark contrast, especially when comparing the infotainment systems. The Tesla Model S with its clean 17” iPad-esque infotainment system which makes you instantly feel like one is sitting is a car of the future and the Audi Q7, which tries to exude luxury by surrounding the small 7” screen in beautifully crafted wood/leather mix, that reminds you of the old-day luxury, and enough buttons around it to test your memory while driving.
Below is the comparison of the two infotainment systems:
Tesla Infotainment system. Quick controls are circled. 1–2–3 show the three simultaneous things displayed. Steering wheel shows the music controls on the left side and voice assistant on the right. Calls can be received/ended by pressing the scroll wheel below.
Audi infotainment system. Temperature controls are physical knobs. The screen is resistive, so not fun to press. There is a TouchPad (TP) on the center console to aid navigation akin to using a laptop and touchpad. It has standard controls on the steering wheel.
Tesla wins hands down, not just because it is a cleaner and more intuitive design, but also because it focuses on the customer. This is reflected in all aspects of the design decisions like navigation style, choice of technology (capacitive screen, voice assistant etc) and in placement of commonly used icons on top & bottom. The biggest difference is the company’s focus on maintaining a relationship with their current customers by not charging necessary extra for features like App access and remote car control and by continuously providing over-the-air updates and improving a customer’s experience with the car and with the company as a whole. One of the features of a great design is how it increases customer satisfaction and Tesla seems to have nailed this with it’s car and car’s infotainment system, and the best measure of its success is that Tesla customers are it’s best spokesmen and yours truly is one of them.