How the Human-Machine Interface is preparing us for vehicle automation.

A human-machine interface (HMI) is an interface that allows us to interact with a digital system. No matter what HMI we design, we need to enable users to take advantage of all that a system offers. 

For almost two decades, the personal computer was the first thing that came to mind when we heard about digital HMI. But the situation changed, and today HMI is an integral part of many devices we use daily — mobile phones, smartwatches, IoT devices, and even cars. Car HMI design is a relatively new field with specific challenges.

My team has experience designing for major automotive companies like Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi, and we want to share some of our practical experience in HMI car design.

What is HMI?

A car HMI is a collection of functional elements (such as head unit, instrument cluster, and head-up display (HUD), as well as interaction mediums (touch, voice, haptic) that can turn the vehicle into a living space. 

A brief history of digital HMIs

Car makers initially introduced digital HMIs in the early 80s. At that time, the number of features in regular vehicles was rising rapidly. Designers needed to provide controls to allow drivers to manage these new functionalities.

They followed two different approaches: some of them used analog controls (they add a physical button for each feature), while others added a screen with dynamic content. The first approach was popular among German car manufacturers, while the second was popular among American and Japanese car manufacturers. The 1986 Buick Riviera is an early example of the latter approach. Inspired by aircraft design, it allowed users to control radio stations and climate using a monochromatic touchscreen display.