Will technology in cars make us safer?

How are car user interfaces going to work, and might they cause us to crash more?
28 March 2017

Interview with 

Peter Cowley


Entrepreneur and angel investor Peter Cowley has car user-interfaces on his radar this week as he explains to Georgia Mills...

Peter - I noticed a couple of weeks ago that a company called Gestigon (a German company) which I met in Vienna some time ago have been sold to a French automotive company. So I started thinking about user interfaces on cars which started simply a long time ago with a Model T Ford, which had one on/off switch and one meter and, of course, it has got massively complicated since then. Slightly less complicated because we’ve got screens and touch screens, but if you go back to a car 20 years ago, it might have had 100/120 buttons on it.

Georgia - So this is the idea of people interacting with their cars?

Peter - Yes, with not just obviously the indicators and lights, but all the other things - the entertainment systems, the sat navs, the telephone, etc. So there are two elements to this, there is the output which is effectively what you need to see, which is the screen, maybe it’s some sort of voice generated information. Or maybe the head up display, which is the one that you get in some cars which sits in front of you projected onto the windscreen. And then the inputs.

The outputs aren’t really too much of a problem. You can get distracted by them but you’re more likely to get distracted by interacting with the device. If you're doing it with voice, which many cars have but, in my view, never seem to work that well. Otherwise it’s knobs and buttons. The ones on the wheel are OK or some sort of touch screen. What’s happening in recent times is that people are wanting more and more information which is similar to that on their mobile phones. There are a number of systems from Apple, from Google, etc which actually convert what’s happening on a phone onto the screen which means they don’t have to build in those complex technologies inside the car and you can have your address book, you can have your music, etc projected into the car.

Georgia - I suppose when you’re driving you do not want to be fiddling around with complex fiddly things, you want it to be a simple as possible. So how are these companies trying to make it easier for you to interact with your car?

Peter - The one extreme you’ve got is the Tessler which has got a 17 inch display in there which is a great big thing that replaces the central console which would be very tempting to browse the internet on. This would be fine if you had an autonomous vehicle but clearly not if you’re having to drive.

At the other end, this Gesticon company is actually monitoring the hands on the wheel and monitoring the fingers and it can detect where the fingers are in space effectively, so you can then either learn or teach it to recognise what volume up and volume down are, and changing the sat nav by selecting letters, etc.

Georgia - OK, and if I do jazz hands, turn the music up - that kind of thing?

Peter - Well, it could be as complicated as that but that means you have to take your hands off the steering wheel.

Georgia - Oh yeah, so don’t do that.

Peter - So don’t do that, exactly. The big issue, of course, is the fact that there’s too many people with phones in the cars and the real serious danger of using your phone while you’re driving. The figures are showing that in the UK the number of road deaths is creeping back up again, even though it’s been going down for many years. The suspicion is that people are texting and using the phone rather than the car.

Georgia - So with all this new technology there’s a danger that instead of helping us it will distract us more from what’s actually going on?

Peter - Absolutely, and it is doing that already. In the medium term, autonomous vehicles means that you can go to sleep in the car and you shouldn’t worry about this at all. But in the meantime, somehow, there’s got to be something in there that stops us. It’s mainly younger people, unfortunately, that are picking up the phone and doing things that they really, really mustn’t do.

Georgia - It’s too tempting to go on social media while they’re doing long journeys?

Peter - Yes, exactly.

Georgia - When will we see this across all cars do you think, this sort of brilliant interface where you can say “car take me here” or “car turn up the volume” or wave your hands?

Peter - Well, with your voice it’s basically there already but it never really worked for me. If you take in terms of the mobile devices, there are many of them. Not just the big electronic manufacturers like Apple, but there are many cars like BMW and Ford who have already got those built in.


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