Why Does Every Car Infotainment System Look so Terrible?
User interface design is difficult, but over the years we have improved to the point where even the thermostat is easy to use. However, automakers seem to be confused, taking inspiration from their infotainment console designs from old Winamp skins rather than any modern interface.
I recently went shopping for cars, which means I was sitting in different models, new and old, with a salesperson trying to justify why their crappy infotainment system is a little dashboard that usually controls at least the radio functions. and the phone is better than the competition. Add to that multiple rental options over the years and I’ve seen pretty much every car infotainment system. With a couple of very rare exceptions, they are terrible all over the world and seem to be designed by someone who hasn’t used a computer since 2000.
Most automakers have their own brand of infotainment systems, and their poor design is more than superficial. For example, Audi has the MMI , an insane system that uses dials to navigate menus instead of a touchscreen, unless you pay to upgrade it. Audi isn’t the only one to shy away from modern innovation. BMW iDrive and Mercedes Comand also rely on dials for data entry. For years, Lexus relied on what was basically a mouse to navigate, which is insanely stupid and difficult to use in real life as it sounds.
Most car makers at least use touchscreens, although their interfaces are cluttered and ugly. Ford has SYNC , Nissan has Connect , Toyota has Entune , Kia has UVO , Subaru has STARLINK, and so on and so forth. As an example, Entune is one of the worst choices that looks better on a laptop running Windows ME than in a new car:
Or check out this crazy CUE Cadillac bullshit:
On most of these infotainment systems, menus feel lacking in logic, settings you need to access frequently are often hidden under a few submenus, and when there’s a touchscreen they feel sluggish and awkward. There is 100% you will need to look in the manual to change a very basic setting. Worst of all is even something simple like icon design. The icons on Chevy’s MyLink look like they come from a cheap clipart collection:
On most infotainment systems, you’ll find horrible icons that are probably included in MS Word for free, weird off-screen fonts, and app integrations for services that I’m pretty sure no one actually uses. For example, who goes to movietickets.com and why would I use any Aha radio ? After sitting in a bunch of cars, I really wanted a classic Winamp. Heck, stick this into the center console of Toyota and I’ll buy this today:
I’m not going to even touch on how bad the navigation systems included with these things are, but rest assured, they are as awful as you remember. For some reason, classic car GPS systems lagged behind smartphones for a long time, and even if it didn’t take 35 minutes to enter an address into one of these things, there is a very good chance that all you see is the screen is an exploded pixel mess. card that is almost impossible to read.
Of course, this is not all bad news. Tesla at least seems to be on the right track, although the 17-inch touchscreen found in their cars is so comically large that I think it’s a distraction. Not that I knew, because I can’t even afford to sit in a Tesla, let alone drive it. Volvo also seems to be on the right track with Sensus , which is, for some strange reason, a vertical screen rather than a horizontal one, but otherwise is the minimally designed interface you’d like in a four-ton moving car. It’s easy to use, you can tweak it a bit, and it’s generally harmless. It’s also a completely new brand and Volvo’s previous systems weren’t that interesting.
Then there is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto , which are reminiscent of what happens when automakers ditch their own systems and just let someone else do it. Both options take advantage of the power of the phone you already use for music and navigation, and also leverage the car’s infotainment features.
This has its pros and cons. Android Auto and CarPlay are pretty much universal enhancements to the automaker’s own terrible infotainment features, but they still have some issues. Namely, applications must actually support two services, which means that you may not always be able to access every application. For example, with CarPlay, you’re mostly blocked on third-party Apple apps like Apple Maps. For iOS users, this is a huge disadvantage because while Apple Maps has improved over the years, they are still not as good as Google Maps or Waze . Luckily, you are not tied to Apple Music or Apple Podcasts, at least as Spotify , Pandora , Pocket Casts , Overcast, and others support CarPlay. Android Auto is slightly better , but still rather limited in the third-party options you have. Either way, there’s a good chance that at least one of the apps you use for audio won’t work with it.
One small issue with both is that you still have to use your car’s crappy infotainment system from time to time, as neither CarPlay nor Android Auto can handle any tuning changes to the entire car. Both are improvements, though, and at least it’s a sign that automakers have completely given up trying to impose their badly engineered systems on us.
But still, not everyone has an iPhone or Android device, and not everyone wants to connect their phone to a car stereo at all. Regardless, these car infotainment systems and their wacky names will be a part of life for years to come, so it would be nice if they even looked like they were designed in the last decade.
We don’t need much here! Just don’t nest menus deeply into other submenus, hand over the icon design to a real designer instead of grabbing some kind of icon from Shutterstock, use large buttons that are easy to press while driving, and spend a few extra dollars to give everything a modern sparkle, so it doesn’t look straight out of 1998.
Look, I know this is difficult and expensive. I know that cars often only use old hardware that can’t work more than a text-based interface. I know this is near the end of the priority list in automobiles, but it might be time to bring it up a bit.
Heck, you can even block access to any settings that could kill me if I set them up wrong, and then open the Linux-style entertainment part so I can set whatever I want there. At the very least, it would be nice to have at least the option to update the OS so that I have at least some hope for changes.