The State of In-Car Infotainment (HMI)

Amist the evolution of mobile and desktop operating system interfaces and UX which has brought about touch-screen interfaces, wearable devices (like Apple Watch), the one notable and lagging area is In-Car HMI.

In-car human machine interfaces industry for some reason has not been able to catch up to the intuitiveness we see on our mobile devices, an obvious lagging on the automotive industry's part.

Cars are the biggest and oldest mobile devices... the face of mobility. We’ve [Ford] been around for over a century. But we welcome the competition from newcomers like Apple and Samsung. (John Ellis, Head of Ford's Developer Program, as cited in Are We There Yet).

With cars being just as much an everyday necessity as mobile phones, the empathy hasn't been as proportionally attended to, and thought of more as an after-thought. More emphasis is placed on the mechanics of the car, and less on the in-car human experience. Car manufacturers have long been out-of-touch, when compared to mobile technology.

Additionally, the concept of car-ownership is gradually changing as well, which in itself presents challenges (as well as opportunities).

In this article, I will analyze a fantastic white-paper written by ustwo, titled Are We There Yet, as I discuss the current state of in-car displays, and subsequently argue that the control-of-technology should move away from car manufacturers, to mobile manufacturers.

Car Infotainment: A Shifting Paradigm

Unlike mobile phones, which generally have an expected lifespan of 2-3 years, cars are expected to last about 10 years, or 250k miles, according to Forbes.

This presents a problem for car manufacturers and probably why it makes keeping the in-car HMI in sync with the latest mobile technologies, which advance at an exponentially faster rate. Whilst we do get yearly car model upgrades, the changes are incremental, and while the software do get updated , the HMI hardware is vastly limited.

In-car HMIs aren't anywhere as near as powerful as the mobile phone processors we have, and thus cannot be expected to perform equally.

So, how do car manufacturers solve this problem? By shifting ownership and responsibility of in-car HMI to third-party car operating-system developers. This is what Apple and Google have done, with Apple Carplay and Android Auto respectively.


Delegating the UI to those who do it best, Apple and Google, it allows car-makers to focus on what they do best, and the same goes for the HMI, which falls within the core competencies of the mobile giants.

Apple Carplay and Android Auto work by having a minimalist ROM sitting on-top of the base HMI operating-system, QNX, and having the user's devices process and project information onto the in-car display. This aleviates the need for high-end processors to be present in in-car HMIs, by letting the mobile phones do all the work, and makes the in-car HMI, more future-proof.

We would like to see more options as far as third-party HMI operating systems, but for now, this is the most promising movement as far as the car infotainment movement goes. Users gain upgrad-ability, and familiarity with the interface via way of a consistent feel to their own operating system. This is the perfect proposition in theory, however in reality, it isn't always the case.

We have seen some car makers implement Apple Carplay, but on a really slow and under-powered HMI. There is a minimum spec that cars have to adhere to, from capacitive touch technology, to memory and processors that are capable of handling CarPlay and Android Auto. It isn't anywhere near what Android and iPhones are, but they do need something.

You Own Your Information, Not Cars

Another shift we are seeing, is in that of car-ownership. Especially evident in cities, we are seeing the shift from traditional ownership of cars, to that of car-sharing, be it Uber, Lyft to the likes of ZipCar, which allow you to book cars for a certain period of time. This takes away a lot of the cost and hassles of owning a car in an urban area, but also takes away a lot of the personalization that comes with not owning your own car.


Plug in your phone in a zipcar, and get your music, your profile and contacts, and settings. The ownership of the information should belong to the user, not the vehicle. and become more agile and transient.

We see this with Uber in another way, where commuters are able to plug in their phone, and play their favorite tracks from their Spotify accounts. While we don't expect to see driver-less cars en-mass anytime soon, we are seeing less and less cars being owned by the new millenias, and this is a strong argument to this article's case that HMI's should not be owned by car makers, but by the phone makers.

Granted, Apple Carplay and Android Auto are still in it's infancy, as far as what it can offer, car makers should start to support it from now, and not drag their feet and insist on their own solutions. Otherwise, we may start to see Apple build their own cars.... Or are we already there...

Design & UX, Reviews, NewsDoron Katz