It doesn’t seem long since cars were content to tell us how fast we were going and how much fuel was in the tank. Some appealed to the repressed fighter pilot with extra gauges for engine speed, battery voltage, oil pressure and even inlet vacuum, but most had a quite straightforward dashboard, meriting only the occasional glance.
By comparison, even the humblest instrument panel of today is encyclopaedic. Apart from the rev counter, speedometer, fuel and temperature gauges, they have more coloured lights than a Christmas tree and an array of menus on at least two multi-function screens.
Cars now keep us up to date with the outside temperature, how long till a service is due, whether the windscreen washers need topping up and traffic conditions on the Uttoxeter bypass. They can read out text messages, answer the phone, guide us to our destination and warn us that it’s time to change gear.
Now don’t get me wrong; I love a gadget, probably more than most people, but so much information and wizardry has been condemned as distracting, especially in America, where the AAA (American vehicle recovery organisation) produces lists of the most attention sapping dashboards; the worst ten include several models sold in the UK. Touch screens with complex menus are the greatest hazard and the only safe way to negotiate many of the functions is to stop the car; inconvenient and often impractical. My current car demands working through three menus just to turn the instrument illumination up or down; a knob on the dash would have been fine, thanks.
However, things are changing. Voice control in cars has been with us for more than a decade and it’s improving all the time. At the moment you generally need to specify the function, then give the command, rather than just asking for your favourite radio station or to be taken to the nearest supermarket. This means thinking in a more structured way than is natural for most of us, but it’s still a huge advance over having to look at complex menus.
Nevertheless, think of how things are changing in our homes. Siri, Cortana and Alexa are being promoted heavily and they are getting better and better at understanding ordinary speech. Most car makers are developing similar voice recognition systems – or they are working with Google, Amazon and Apple to use theirs.
Progress among drivers appears a little slower. Although it’s now one of my “must have” features, I haven’t had voice control demonstrated to me by any dealer when I’ve been looking for a car and, at least in my experience, lots of drivers seem self-conscious about talking to their car, especially with passengers. This needs to change and not simply because a generation of drivers will have grown up with Siri and her counterparts; voice control will be a major boon for drivers of all ages as functions become more numerous and complex.
Manufacturers need to promote voice control as much as the tech companies promote their electronic assistants and, more importantly, dealers need to encourage buyers to try it out, so that we can all start chatting to our four wheeled friends without giving the instruments a second glance.By Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart's head of technical policy and advice