Have you noticed how a lot of the latest electric vehicles (EVs) and concept cars have like 3–5 different screens in the car? Here are a couple of examples:
For the longest time, I really couldn’t figure out why on earth they would do that. When you think of the Tesla Model 3, there is one big screen and practically no buttons. I can watch Netflix, Hulu, or YouTube on that when I want to. Sure, multiple displays look cool, but is that all they are going for? The answer to that question is actually pretty interesting.
CleanTechnica recently interviewed Jason Williamson, a VP at Altia. This company has guided the development of the automotive user interface as well as the graphic user interface for almost 30 years. It’s a secret sauce company with software that has helped countless automakers create their user interfaces. From now on in this article, user interface and graphic user interface will be referred to as UI and GUI.
Altia started in 1991 as a part of Hewlett-Packard. In 1993, it became its own company. Jason joined in 1997, the year Google was founded, at which point Altia was already helping automakers develop user interfaces. Here is an image of their software from that year compared to Microsoft Windows and Google from that year:
At least 30% of the automotive market uses Altia
Altia, however, is not rooted in the past. Its software today is used by at least 15 different automakers worldwide to design GUIs. We said at least 15 because that is how many were on the list Altia gave us and not under NDA, meaning there could be more. For sure GM (and its subsidiaries), Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (and its subsidiaries), as well as Ford, Renault, Honda, and a bunch of smaller companies are clients. One of the smaller ones is Lamborghini, which also makes us wonder whether parent companies Audi and Volkswagen Group are also clients.
In any case, even without them, this is a sizable chunk of the international market, somewhere around 30%. Altia is currently focusing on selling its product to Chinese automotive companies and could soon be found in products designed by and for the Chinese market as well.
GUIs — so, what does Altia do?
In Jason’s words, “What Altia does is it lets you draw up this GUI, push a button and out comes out all of the source code you need.” In other words their software lets designers and programmers each do what they know best and then seamlessly turns a design into code that gets linked to the rest of the product’s software. In today’s world, creating interactive designs without programming is an extreme rarity. Personally, with my knowledge of Photoshop, a 3D modeling program called Maya, a program to make video games called Unity, and some basic knowledge of programming, that means I could probably design a car’s UI. To me that is just incredible that this is possible thanks to Altia’s design software and its integrations with other programs.
One thing is certain — Jason and Altia have insight that not only explains today’s market but can help us understand where the market is going. While a bit off topic, Altia also has some really cool clients, like NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Panasonic, and Stanford University, to name just a few. So, Altia’s expertise is not limited to the automotive industry.
The arguments for more buttons or more screens
What most people might not know, is that when a car has multiple screens, that is called an “integrated cockpit.” Our discussion with Jason inevitably led us to the topic of Tesla and the discussion of one vs multiple screens.
“As a company that develops GUIs, some might think that we would love to push everything into a display. Nothing could be further from the truth. You got to have physical buttons, you got to have voice, you got to have screens, and sometimes you need to have these overlapping capabilities. Multi-input modality is what is critical to a good user experience,” Jason said. I asked him how many buttons he would add to a Model 3. Jason wasn’t sure. He said, “I’d have to think about it for a while, but it would probably be 25 new buttons.” Further conversation with Jason revealed why he said this.
His reasoning has to do with the driver’s cognitive load. Tesla’s approach is perfect for a “level 4” or “level 5” autonomous vehicle, but might not be sufficiently safe while the vehicle still requires a human driver. The question is how much time a driver has to spend to fulfill a function, and the vehicle’s ability to respond to the driver. In a Tesla, changing the fan speed or adjusting the display brightness requires at least 2 taps. It’s also important for input cross-functionality, more than one way of performing the same function. Nowadays, a good example is voice activation. When you think about it, all non-Tesla vehicles currently on the road are never going to become fully autonomous. They were never intended to. Jason did make one concession. “If I’m not driving the car, I don’t mind putting up with a screen, if I have nothing else to do.”
For now, an “integrated cockpit” is something only found in premium vehicles, but as costs go down, it will become more commonplace, at least until cars become fully autonomous.
On a side note, according to Jason, one more thing we can expect in the future are small buttons in which each button is a screen on its own. Buttons could be customized or display a status. The Jaguar I-Pace is an example, but this is just the beginning.
A heads-up display is not cheap, but prices are falling. A heads-up display is a complicated feature with enormous future potential and could play an integral part in autonomy. Altia with its partners is working on developing larger and more complicated heads-up displays. “We work with all kinds of technology partners. We’re working on things like directional glass that reflects one image to the driver and another to the passenger or where you wouldn’t see anything as the passenger. For this technology we are working with eye-tracking.”
Hopefully one day UI will cover the entire windscreen, show different images to the driver and the passenger, and enable some pretty great augmented reality. While Altia is not able to share too much about ongoing projects with its partners, it did show us a video. This video shows them exploring the concept and it addresses a big autopilot shortcoming. In my experience with autopilot, I often encountered situations in which the vehicle got too close to a truck, or someone merged into my lane and the vehicle did not respond that made me wonder whether it even sees the vehicle. While thanks to Tesla’s latest updates we now see a simulation of everything the vehicle sees around it, the driver should look at the road, not the console, to get this information.
As you can see in the video above, if an autonomous car gives the backup driver or the passengers information like this on a head’s-up display, they will feel more at ease. According to Altia, and quite correctly, its important to leave the road unobstructed, so that if there is an object there it becomes apparent whether the vehicle sees it or not, “This is crucial for the takeover scenario,” Jason said.
However, autonomy does open new possibilities, as Jason said “The fact that with autonomy and distraction are becoming less of an issue, there is a lower cognitive load, it opens up all kinds of cool possibilities. GUIs can be more engaging, designers can start using more and more surfaces as a display like the front windscreen or the dashboard.” This brings us to the next topic.
GUIs: the processors & power usage
“We love it when someone has this really powerful hardware. It’s like a kid in a candy store for us because we get to go out there and create some really mind-bending next-generation effects,” Jason said.
Currently, automotive manufacturers are trying to get hardware that exactly fits the technical requirements of the 3D special effects they want to give the GUIs in their cars. How cool those effects are depends on how expensive the car is, but more and more it depends on how much power it will use. The issue started off as cost of the processor, but power consumption is now also a major consideration especially as we move to electrification. “Futuristic GUI, if you think of it in terms of pixels, we could do it right now,” Jason said.
Altia does not fear vertical integration
During the whole talk about autonomy and processors, Tesla’s new “Hardware 3″ processor came up. Tesla vertically integrated everything from hardware design to software — it’s unprecedented, which made us wonder whether this would threaten Altia if it became a trend among automakers. Altia said it supports the hardware that automakers put into their cars, whatever it is. “No matter who makes the hardware, they need software to drive it and we generate the code for that. There are not enough engineers in the world to write all this graphics code.” This is a good point, as Tesla has made clear on many occasions. How quickly the company can expand and innovate is limited by the number of good engineers in the world. Whether that would be factory engineers, hardware engineers, software engineers, or [insert crucial engineering type here] engineers. The engineering categories are vast.
Automakers currently can’t do what Tesla has done even if they wanted to and could financially afford it. “The challenge for the engineers in the auto companies is how to implement artificial intelligence, autonomous driving, voice recognition. We are not worried that other automakers will take the Tesla route where they try to make the hardware as well as all of the software from scratch.“
Our interview with Jason was enlightening. We got answers to a multitude of questions, like why automakers are moving to “integrated cockpits” and why we don’t see them moving in the direction Tesla is heading in — it’s all about automation. The idea of a head’s up augmented reality display in an autonomous vehicle that tells the driver what the car does and does not see, while expensive, might be a worthwhile concept.
While vertical integration might have been possible for Tesla, this once again shows that trying to follow Tesla’s lead might simply not be possible for the competition. If you can think of any interesting questions you think we should have discussed, let us know down in the comments and we will try to get you an answer to those.