Kevin Cheng  


March 26th, 2004 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

The topic of just how bad BMWís iDrive system is has been beaten, resurrected, stoned, dragged, reincarnated, perforated and nuked. However, we all know a subject hasnít been sufficiently mocked until we draw a comic on it.

What can really be said about the iDrive that hasnít been already said? The interface is difficult to use even if people are focused on operating the system without driving. Hundreds of functions, all crammed into one tiny screen and buttons that do different things depending on what mode you are in. Voice commands that require the driver to recall sequences of key words. All of these ďfeaturesĒ and more made iDrive the HCI punching bag for the last year or more. Amidst all this mess, nobodyís bothered to mention the sheer courage that BMW has shown.While other manufacturers ďrevolutionizeĒ their dashboard by moving a tachometer a foot over or using digital dashboard displays, BMW has shown some indication that theyíre willing to change with the times. The fact is, drivers are overloaded. Too many tasks can and are done whilst operating a vehicle and as much as we want people to stop doing it, these secondary tasks are here to stay.

Change the radio station.
Signal a lane change.
Check your directions.
Listen to the traffic report.
Change CDs.
Defog the rear windshield.
Change the temperature.
Shoulder check.
Talk to your passenger.
Slow down with the traffic ahead.
Yell at your kid in the backseat.
Have a sip of your drink.

BMW, for whatever reason, failed to do sufficient user testing and usability studies up front or received inaccurate data on the usability of their product. For that, they are paying the price of extremely negative press. Yet they have displayed some level of audacity to even try a stunt like this. Recognizing the increasing complexity, they are attempting to do something about it for they are in a position to do so.

As usability pundits, we all want to give our opinion on just how bad a job they did and why itís so unusable. Having never used the system, I canít comment from personal experience but Iíve read the user manual and Iíve read many reviews and Iím inclined to agree with the critics.

Technology isnít always the answer to our problems but technology is what brought about the driving complexity problem in the first place. Since itís unlikely that weíll remove the complexity, letís also applaud BMW for trying to re-think our driving experience. In a perfect world, theyíd work with other manufacturers so that the new experience is at least standardized across automobiles but since we canít even standardize on where the windshield wiper controls go, Iíll settle for them at least trying to make a difference.

Other Ways of Making a Difference

(update to original post)

Heads Up Displays (HUDs)
A HUD displays information directly in front of the driver. Taken from its application in fighter jets, HUDs allow the operator to see information thatís important to them without taking focus away from the primary task of controlling the vehicle. Potential ideas for an HUD include regular displays such as speedometer and odometer but could also be used to display information such as caller identification. Keeping the user focussed on the HUD also keeps them focussed on whatís ahead of them and has been found to help drivers respond faster to information on the road such as traffic lights, speed change, or construction signage.

Automated Cruise-Assist Highway Systems (AHS) and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS)
With the introduction of more intelligent support systems, the mental workload necessary to operate a motor vehicle may be decreasing. Systems such as the ITS and AHS work in conjunction with each other to give contextual information to the driver such that they will attempt, for example, right turns with approaching traffic. These systems, perhaps in the future combined even with an automatic driver, could significantly reduce the risk of driving and also permit drivers to perform other tasks exclusively unless signalled otherwise (in extenuating circumstances).

Adaptive Driver Systems
An adaptive driver system monitors the vehicleís patterns as well as the characteristics of the driver (typically physiological). Based on these inputs, the system attempts to provide the most appropriate level of information and stimulation. Various systems are either being developed or have been developed to deal with the increasing complexity in operating vehicles. These systems are primarily focussed on detecting and adapting to fatigue in drivers but since the fatigue is primarily measured on attention workload, the findings can be interpolated to mobile phone applications.

In the case of mobile phones, the adaptive system may choose not to alert you of an incoming call based on the task at hand. This decision could be based on speed of the vehicle, whether cruise control was activated, whether the vehicle was turning, time of day, etc. Less severe actions may include varying the level and mode of alert. Thus far, initial attempts at such systems seem to have yielded favourable results.

(Thanks to Andrei Sedelnikov for giving us the idea of putting the iDrive into a plane)

14 Responses to “iFly”
Bob wrote:

If iDrive lets you drive like Clive Owen, then it can’t be too bad:

(Favourites are season 2: Ticker and season 1: star.)

I’m still waiting for the James Bond Nokia/BMW remote control phone. *Sigh*

Joe wrote:

I’d like to see a heads-up display approach, one that segregates those items that are voice-actionable (and that make HF sense to do so) from those items that are physiologically actionable (such as lane change indication, braking, accelerating, and so on).

And I’d like to see it made for motorcycling, where physical motion is severely restricted due to safety and, well, laws of physics constraints. But I do think BMW has, despite their courage (and I do agree on that point), created an unusable and potentially hazardous tool.

manuel razzari wrote:

what’s up with the pilot’s hair? Did he got bald on ejection? Bad usability makes you lose your hair ;)

KC wrote:

Joe: Thanks for bringing that up. I forgot to add a section I wrote on some other devices people are working on to ease the task of driving.

Manuel: The pilot either has a combover or a toupee. But yes, bad usability certainly causes hair loss for me out of sheer frustration and stress.

Audiophile wrote:

FYI, GM started offering cars with HUDs back in 1988. They didn’t receive much of a warm welcome and I vaguely recall that they mostly got panned by the press. Note that in the last article, they specifically identify the fact that BMW plans to introduce HUDs on their 5-series this spring.

HUD (And We Ain’t Talkin’ Homes Here)
GM’s “Total Safety” Systems - Systems for better Visibility
EE Times: Head-up displays get second glance

Ram Yoga wrote:

BMW actually offers HUD for the new 5-series. (click: highlights->ergonomics->Head-Up Display).

And although the iDrive system has gotten a lot of flack, it seems to be the system that came with the 7-series that has gotten this. BMW has continued to improve (and simplify) the system, and iDrive now comes for all BMW cars.

KC wrote:

I’m aware that iDrive is being rolled out and improved upon but I’m still skeptical of the modal system that requires users to know what mode it’s in and for them to spend even more time away from looking at the road.

I wasn’t aware of the recent (and very old) introductions of HUDs, however. Anyone try one of these yet?

From the third link audiophiles gave: “After it bounces off the mirrors and off the windshield, it gives the appearance that it is floating”


Josh wrote:

I’ve driven a ‘Vette with the HUD feature, and it’s pretty cool. The “screen” sort of hovers in front of the car, so you just refocus your eyes to look at it. You don’t have to think about it at all, it feels natural.

Bob wrote:

Re. KC’s

I’m still skeptical of the modal system that requires users to know what mode it’s in and for them to spend even more time away from looking at the road.

I think that bog-standard cruise control improves the usability and safety of car driving - if you’re a law-abiding citizen and so want to obey speed limits but also want to drive as fast as you’re allowed, constantly monitoring your speed can drain your attention. One answer would be a speedo on the HUD, but just cruise control would be enough. (Lower technology solution, but sufficient.)

KC wrote:

That’s true, cruise control has simplified driving. I’m not sure if you were arguing that it’s an example of multi-mode driving that works. I feel that it’s different from iDrive because it doesn’t require you to necessarily know what mode you’re in. Pretty much anything you do overrides the cruise control. In iDrive, if you’re in the wrong mode, the ejection seat goes off.

KC wrote:

An interesting article on NYT about some of the upcoming driving technologies being introduced or recently introduced. Adaptive driving is mentioned as well as minor autopiloting. Some of the drive by wire worries me as I expect to see incidents similar to those that occurred when planes first started going fly by wire.

NYTimes Article

Bob wrote:

Interesting Economist article.

It’s about systems that hide things from the driver e.g. incoming mobile phone calls based on a guess at how busy the driver is.

Can it make my children be quiet when I’m lost and arguing with my wife? (If so I’d buy one like a shot.)

KC wrote:

Why don’t you just ask for directions? ;)

Barbara Tanning wrote:

We are the best place to buy used cars online. We offer low, no-haggle prices and have a huge selection of used cars for sale. Search for a car repair service shop or mechanic near you. Read car reviews for all makes and models.

Leave a Reply

OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?