The face of self-driving cars: How UI design builds trust for autonomy

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Self-driving cars are going mainstream, thanks to manufacturing innovations from the likes of Tesla and futuristic business opportunities from the likes of Uber. But with the plethora of connected car devices now available and more in the works, and the promise of driverless cars (a survey by Gemalto NV revealed that 63 percent of respondents expect driverless cars to be a common sight in 2025), can we trust the performance and security of today and tomorrow’s cars? One startup thinks user interface design can help humans and autonomous cars build beautiful relationships.

According to a 2015 survey by NerdWallet, Inc., 46 percent of the respondents cited safety concerns as a major drawback of self-driving cars, but there are some factors that could possibly change their minds to owning one. This is an area in which user interface can educate drivers and help them adopt the increasing amount of autonomous technology being installed in cars today, and this is an opportunity for Idean, Inc. to shape the experience of an entirely new breed of vehicles.

I recently spoke with Risto Lähdesmäki, CEO and cofounder of design firm Idean, on connected car interface design, as well as the challenges of getting people to trust driverless vehicles. Idean has worked with the driver interface for some major driverless car projects, including Delphi’s new interface for self-driving car.

Cars as entertainment platforms

Q: How did Idean get started in designing self-driving car interfaces?

Lähdesmäki: Cars are super exciting to us. We’re seeing a huge transformation in how cars are becoming more like service platforms — almost like an entertainment platform. We’re working with Volkswagen, Honda, Kia and Delphi (which came out with a new self-driving concept at CES featuring our work).

We want to change how people enjoy car driving. The self-driving car experience is like, ‘Wow! I’m getting time, hours back.’ You can’t always have money, but you can always have time. At some point, we may not even own cars. I might get a Tesla one morning, and the next I get an SUV — they’re driving themselves to my door, and I use them for a while and let them go.

Can driverless cars be trusted?

Q: How can UI design get us to trust cars?

Lähdesmäki:People are skeptical about the change to self-driving cars, so UI can help them trust, let them try things out. We’re seeing often that UI is too complicated and distracting. UI design should help me as a user. That’s what we’re all about.

Today if you look at most cars’ UIs, they’re horrifying. To me, UIs in cars are lowering their value. Luckily in the car industry, even though it’s slow moving, we’re seeing positive transformation toward a better experience. Companies aren’t just trying to sell a piece of metal, but they’re thinking through the car experience flow.

I’m focused now on building trust. Building a relationship between you and your car … this will help us trust devices more. Our customers want some sexiness to the car UI as well. The CEO of one of the largest car manufacturers in Germany came to us and asked, ‘what luxury will look like in 2020?’ They’re beautiful themselves, but UI is not. The interaction design isn’t there — we want to define how the UI will define the brand. The future of cars will have massive screens, like Tesla. And I think they can do better. It’s also about making it personal, which is more than UI colors. It’s the whole tone and approach — how the car listens to me.

Q: What’s your Research & Development process?

Lähdesmäki: We always want to get next to real people, the ones driving the cars, talk with them and see how they behave, and use that as a starting point for our design. Where is the friction? That’s an opportunity to design something fair.

With Delphi, the project took six months. We drove around the valley and other areas of the U.S. with self-driving cars to observe how people behaved. We took those data points and turned those into whiteboards to complete the prototype shown at CES. A project we did with Intel was also shown there as well.

Beyond car manufacturers, those providing the networks are investing quite a lot to support this industry. There will be a new ecosystem.

What’s next for self-driving cars?

Q: How long until we can drive an autonomous vehicle?

Lähdesmäki: Personally, I hope it happens tomorrow! I’m ready. In the next five years, a lot of first movers will be entering the field. We might be looking at 15 to 20 years.

Much of the technology is already available, but because of regulations, it will take time. I wish the move would happen faster. Hopefully, I’ll be surprised. It’s starting to feel like all the companies are suddenly realizing first movers are winning the game.

Q: Should cars be the next fitness tracker?

Lähdesmäki: Yes! That’s a brilliant idea. The whole industry is missing an ecosystem at the moment. There’s Fitbits, Apple Watches, doing their own thing — not connected in a way anyone could use those metrics. So when I’m sitting in a car, the seat knows my weight. I strongly believe the car is an extension of fitness, making recommendations on how to live a better life.

About Risto Lähdesmäki, CEO and cofounder of Idean Inc.

Risto Lahdesmaki bio photoWith more than 20 years’ experience within the creative and digital industry, Lähdesmäki has been involved in and led hundreds of projects, with a strong emphasis in user interface, user experience and customer experience. He calls himself an “entrepreneur-spirited-jack-of-all-trades-creative-director.” Lähdesmäki identifies business opportunities for his clients. He is helping to shape the future of branding through UX. Lähdesmäki has led Idean’s rapid rate of growth across the U.S., and he is an entrepreneur and designer at heart who has worked with start-ups, as well as big enterprises. He was recently named PwC’s Most Valuable Entrepreneur 2015 at the Nordic Business Forum.

Photo image courtesy of Delphi