UX Designers and “Engineering Chefs” Cook up Unique User Interfaces

Designing replaceable hardware and upgradeable software will enhance user experience in commercial-vehicle and off-highway cabs.

The hybrid-electric Steyr Konzept tractor incorporates a head-up display that places key parameters in the operator’s line-of-sight to enhance visibility, productivity and safety. (CNH Industrial)

Cabin interiors will continue to transform in the coming years, largely driven by the advanced UI/UX (user interface/user experience) development taking place in companies’ innovation centers, said David Wilkie, director of the CNH Industrial Design Center, speaking at a 2020 SAE COMVEC Digital Summit session on design’s role in product development. He believes a designer’s job is to foster a “human connection” between the machine and the operator that includes a focus on ergonomics and the details that make for a “more pleasurable” operating environment.

The interior of the battery-electric Nikola Tre semi-truck features fully digital displays, a 21-inch touchscreen and full camera monitor system, along with sustainable materials. (Nikola)

“There’s a huge push towards improving the cabin, improving the way of life for the operator and really making things easy to use and a pleasure to use,” Wilkie said. “To do this, you don’t just need a designer or a stylist, what you need is a team – an engineering team that works with us, you need ergonomics, and you need the UX/UI team because it’s the complete package.”

Wilkie presented several recent futuristic-looking concept vehicles by CNH brands that span the agricultural, construction and commercial vehicle segments. A hybrid-electric tractor concept from Steyr and powertrain partner FPT Industrial revealed in late 2019, the Steyr Konzept, won a 2020 MUSE Design Award for Concept Design. This “future vision for agricultural machinery” features a minimalist design for the cab but maximizes advanced human-machine interface (HMI) technology.

For example, key operating parameters are projected onto a head-up display (HUD) to provide at-a-glance information, enhancing operator visibility and minimizing distractions. An integrated display on the right-hand window allows operators to perform farm-management “office” activities, and precision farming is supported by a drone that transmits real-time data back to the cab so parameters can be modified based on actual field conditions.

Despite the sleek designs and high-tech features, the CNH concepts still retain traditional HMI elements, such as a steering wheel. Why remain so operator-focused? “I believe that the cab is still with us for a while,” Wilkie said. “Full autonomous is actually easier for the designer. I think we should be looking at both.”

HMI standardization

Providing an automotive aftermarket perspective on consumer electronics, Chris Cook, president of the Mobile Electronics Association, stressed that nothing should break the 10-2-30 rule to ensure safe operation – meaning no more than 10 two-second glances in a 30-second period. This rule should apply whether designing for the aftermarket or for original equipment, he said.

Working against this goal is a lack of HMI standardization, Cook said, noting that drivers must acclimate to varied interfaces as they operate different vehicles. “HMIs from various automakers, as we’ve seen from the aftermarket side, become very complicated and almost immediately after they’re delivered become outdated,” he said. Some manufacturers have begun to integrate functionality that allows certain software updates, but “it’s still not to a point where over the life cycle of the vehicle that those technologies can be updated.”

Virtual reality and advanced simulation help designers conceptualize future machines and how operators interact with them. (CNH Industrial)

Chris Brockbank, VP of technology and strategy at Ricardo North America, agreed. “As a young engineer, I was responsible for cruise control. Even today, every cruise control – a safety-critical system, something that can accelerate the vehicle – it’s different in every vehicle. It’s amazing that happens,” he said.

A unique, “service-oriented” software platform architecture is required, Brockbank added. Engineers need to ensure that hardware is designed to have enough memory and the software platform architected properly to enable over-the-air (OTA) updates throughout the vehicle’s life, he said. HMI standards should be guidelines and offer boundaries rather than be a strict mandate, according to Brockbank. “We can’t dictate because that’s going to dampen creativity. I don’t know what my team and I are going to be doing in a few years’ time, and I love that.”

“For the aftermarket, it’s all about the user experience,” Cook emphasized. “I hope this becomes an open discussion to talk about that user experience and how we can meet that challenge working together, both OEM and aftermarket.”

Engineering culture shift

Unlike consumer electronics, where products have a limited shelf life, commercial vehicles cannot be discarded when certain systems – like the HMI elements in the cab – become outdated. “It means that not only do we have to update the software, which we’ve been doing, we have to consider that we update the hardware, the interface, and how we’re going to go about this,” said Brockbank. “We must design things as engineers that can be replaceable.”

What’s needed, according to Brockbank, is a monumental culture shift in engineering design. “We were trained in engineering to be ingrained in traditional thinking – ‘I need this design to last 20 years; it must not break; the world can end and this will still be there,’ particularly in the commercial-vehicle world,” he told COMVEC attendees.

Instead, engineers should become more like chefs, creating products that are consumed, enjoyed, appreciated, and then move on to the next one, Brockbank said. This strategy requires a move toward modular design. “It’s not just OTA updates of software but the whole operating system. But then the most important one, we need ‘plug and play’ hardware,” he said. And not just hardware that’s replaced at a dealership, but rather can be removed by the user/operator.

Touch screens and HUDs eventually will become more commonplace in commercial vehicles and heavy equipment, he believes, and the steering wheel and other traditional controls may give way to voice activation or even eyeball activation to move a vehicle around.

To avoid excessive waste, hardware components that are going to be replaced must also be designed to be recyclable. “The biggest problem with recycling and end-of-life at the moment is we’re trying to apply new standards to old products,” Brockbank said. “But if we know on the front end that this product in five years’ time is going to be stripped apart and recycled, that’s how I’ll design it.”