Tomorrow’s Vehicles May Lose the Buttons and Knobs

“Virtually every knob can be replaced,” says Mike Maddelein, vice president-engineering at auto supplier Inteva.

Steve Finlay, Contributing Editor

October 3, 2019

3 Min Read
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From left, WardsAuto UX Conference panelists Maddelein, Lyon and Wetzel.Joe Wilssens

NOVI, MI – Tomorrow’s vehicles may lose what for years have been traditional interior givens: control buttons and knobs.

That forecast comes from a new online survey of auto industry players and WardsAuto subscribers.

Eighty-three percent of respondents expect automakers will replace conventional buttons and knobs in five years, according to the WardsAuto/Inteva 2019 Automotive Interior Trends report, based on survey data.

The industry polling includes other futuristic topics, including how cockpits might change and which interior features will people most desire in five to 10 years.  

“Virtually every knob can be replaced,” says Mike Maddelein, vice president-engineering at auto supplier Inteva.

That doesn’t mean they all will be, he adds. “It’s a question of user experience.” He cites the benefit of “turning a radio knob and getting instant feedback.”

Maddelein participates in a WardsAuto UX Conference panel discussion entitled “HMI and Cockpit Design: Where Is It Headed?”

If tomorrow’s vehicles are button- and knob-free, what will swap them out?

“I’m a big fan of voice control; I’m not a fan of gesture recognition,” Maddelein says, referring to ways of controlling temperature settings, audio systems, navigation setups and other infotainment functionality.

Consumer surveys in recent years have indicated people aren’t big fans of vehicle voice-control systems, often complaining about glitches in following a verbal command. 

But voice-recognition systems are improving, says panelist Liz Wetzel, co-director-transportation design program at Lawrence Technology University and former director-global user experience product design at General Motors.

“I’m blown away by how much technology has advanced,” she says. “Who would have thought five years ago voice (control) could replace everything.”

Wetzel isn’t necessarily betting big on buttons 10 years out. At that point, “you don’t need buttons at all, except for some on the steering wheel,” she says. “You can use controls without ever taking your hands off the wheel.”

Still, well-crafted knobs offer form and function, says Dave Lyon, owner of Pocketsquare Design. He’s a veteran designer and involved in launching Vietnam’s first automaker, Vinfast.

Some knobs, particularly in Volvos, are “gorgeous” he says, likening them to jewelry.

Today at least, most consumers prefer sound system dials over touchscreen controls, Lyon says. “We tried volume control without knobs, and the market didn’t like it.”

Key findings in the 2019 Automotive Interior Trend report include:

  • An expectation that tomorrow’s cockpits will look different. Seventy-two percent of respondents say that in five years they will look somewhat different, 22% said not much different and 6% said totally different. Yet extended out to 10 years, 66% said totally different, 32% said somewhat and 2% said not much.

  • The majority of respondents foresee heated and cooled surfaces (61%), surface cleanability (57%) and softness (40%) as the most desirable luxury material features within five years. In 10 years, no cited single feature stood out in desirability, but ambient lighting through material surfaces ranks as a frontrunner (43%) followed by anti-microbial surface treatment (35%).

Vehicle cleanliness – especially as it relates to low-germ counts – is expected as a must-have feature in impending autonomous vehicles that are put to ride- and car-sharing use, says Wetzel.

In such circumstances, cleanability “absolutely” is an issue, says Wetzel, who adds that the first thing she does when seated in a commercial airplane is use an anti-bacterial wipe to disinfect her surroundings.

Treated surfaces that kill everyday bacteria “definitely will be a key feature in ride sharing,” Maddelein says.

A self-driving vehicle that virtually cleans itself on the go “becomes really important” in future car-sharing programs, Lyon says. “Stopping and cleaning all the time could slow down the autonomous future.”

He foresees the possibility of easily reconfiguring tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles based on a particular use. For example, a vehicle could function as a delivery van with lots of cargo room, then convert into a people mover with abundant seating.

Maddelein isn’t sure such a morphing vehicle will find a place in the market of tomorrow. “It is possible, but I don’t know if we want to do it.”

For designers, “shared is the future,” Lyon says. Today, ride hailers more readily take what they can get. “When I order a Lyft ride in New York, and a green minivan shows up, a part of me dies. But I don’t wave them off.”

About the Author(s)

Steve Finlay

Contributing Editor, WardsAuto

Steven Finlay is a former longtime editor for WardsAuto. He writes about a range of topics including automotive dealers and issues that impact their business.

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