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business models, strategies and technologies

The car as an assault on good taste

The name of the car interior design game has changed from mechanical to digital  – but manufacturers don’t seem to have caught up yet

Interior choices

I was recently in the market for a new car. It ain’t easy, and not surprisingly my wallet won’t stretch as far as my vehicular aspirations. As a design fanatic/feinschmecker (take your pick), the interior experience has always been crucial for me. It’s what you sit looking at every moment you’re in the car, whereas the exterior that everyone normally drools over is something you only see when approaching your rapidly depreciating tin can.

Designwise, virtually all mainstream car interiors are plagued by clunky, inelegant controls of different types smothered all over the interior surfaces. There are dials and buttons, switches, sliders and levers of countless mis-matched types. There are lumps, bumps, curves, protuberances, grills, holes and slots. Most bits are rounded off, for safety reasons, but there’s rarely any apparent consistency about how or why. There are oodles of weird material mixes, most of them trying to look like something they’re not. Unless you can afford the über-brands, almost everything is probably ersatz, walking an inelegant design tightrope between funky/weird and mainstream stylish, and then balancing with obeisance to the corporate bean-counters.

2015 Ford cockpit

2015 Ford cockpit

When confronted with a car interior like this, my design mind gets seriously discombobulated, and I feel pysically sick. That’s why in an ideal world there are only three-ish car makes that really even come into consideration for me – Tesla, Jaguar and Volvo. Why? Because of their (relative) minimalism. After seeing and drooling over the size and omnipotence of the Tesla screen everything else seems clunky, old-fashioned, second-rate and doomed.

The car as an electronics experience

The digitally based driving-and-systems-control experience has only fairly recently moved from peripheral/up-market bling to starting taking over from 90+ years of steam-punk dials and gauges (interrupted only by attempts at updated ribbon-style displays in the 1960s and 1970s). The problem is that the game has only recently been transmuted to digital for car interiors, and neither manufacturers or us car owners have really yet digested the full ramifications – it’s much more than just a navigation screen clunkily repurposed for other stuff.

Interior for Jaguar C-X17 concept car (January 2015)

Interior for Jaguar C-X17 concept car (January 2015)

Now we’re over the first crest of the “let’s-go-digital” hump, it seems ridiculous to duplicate electronics and capabilities – navigation is on your phone, the iPad in your bag, and on the screen in your car. The manufacturer of each of these gadgets is presenting us with the same “service”, with no real linking or coordination.

The interface between mechanical and electronic now seems ready to take over in car interiors – but let’s hope manufacturers take customers into consideration and provide us with new/better capabilities, rather than just barrelling along the legacy path.