A key part of engaging the user with infotainment is the creation of a better user experience. The vehicle UX today can be compared with where smartphones were before the iPhone was launched. The iPhone UX with a grid of icons on a touchscreen, however, does not work well in the vehicle. In this paper, we draw a parallel between infotainment and pre-iPhone smartphones and explore the potential of voice to improve the user experience.

Contact Us

The in-vehicle infotainment unit today is where the handset industry was in 2006. Even then, the idea of a mobile device that could do more than voice and text had been around for a very long time, but no one had really been able to make anything of it. There was a smartphone market but penetration was low and limited mostly to the more technologically-literate segment of the market. Despite their literacy, usage was almost completely dominated by voice and text as there was not much other than games that could be done easily with the devices. It was not until Apple forced the industry to throw away the shackles of legacy and embrace the new and unknown that the smartphone was able to come of age. We believe that something very similar will happen in vehicles, which are now still somewhat stuck in the notion that the experience in the vehicle has to be the same as it is on the phone.

When Apple launched the iPhone, it took a huge risk in departing from the tried and tested method of ensuring that a smartphone was a phone first and a computer second. This meant that every device had to have a physical keyboard and had to be able to be operated with one hand. This was the hard and fast rule and until Apple turned the market on its head, it held absolutely true and every smartphone that launched without these features failed miserably.

An analysis of what made the iPhone successful is useful as a starting point for what needs to happen with the in-vehicle digital experience. When comparing the iPhone with Nokia’s most successful smartphone, it quickly becomes clear that the only place where the n95 fell drastically short was on the user experience, as the n95 had a better offering of third party apps and Symbian did not suffer from meaningful software fragmentation.

In the automobile industry, Cogniance sees a very similar pattern, where the current state of digital in the vehicle is where Symbian (and Microsoft) smartphones were in 2006. In the automobile, the primary digital interface is the infotainment unit. We consider instrument clusters and other screens to be secondary to the infotainment unit, as they often display the same information in a manner dictated by the main unit.

Comparing the OEM with Apple and Google’s user experiences shows a similar pattern to that seen with Nokia in 2007.

Cogniance thinks that no one has a clear idea of the best way for the driver to interact with Digital Life services in the automobile and as a result has assumed that replicating the smartphone will be good enough.

vertical 2
The problem is that the user experience of all infotainment units appears to have been designed on the rules that apply to the smartphone and not to those of the car.

Clearly it is not, because the in-vehicle context is very different. The distance between the user and the screen is much greater and for most of the time, the user’s eyes are required to be on the road. Replication of the smartphone user experience does not really work well in the automobile, which is why the adoption of new services remains extremely slow. For example, in the US, the vast majority of all media consumption in the automobile remains analogue radio built into the dashboard. This is despite extremely high penetration of the driving population with Digital Life services via their smartphones. We argue that a different approach to interacting with the driver is required. Of the current contenders out there, the most promising is voice, but this is also beset with its fair share of problems.


While humans remain responsible for driving, major limitations are placed upon the man/ machine interface as the driver’s attention has to remain on the road. The primary sense required is for the road is sight, meaning that the leading contender for interaction with Digital Life services remains voice and audio. However, voice is not without limitations. In the vehicle, it is an ideal method for interaction but its utility is still very limited as compared with using screen and touch for communicating with the user.

This is because the medium of sound is far more limited in the information that it can relay compared with information that can be conveyed visually. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words accurately illustrates the problems of limiting the communication between man and machine to audio only. However, it is worth noting that between humans, it is possible to convey vast amounts of information through the medium of conversation. This is clearly what is missing when using voice to interact with machines.

Improvements in voice recognition and natural language processing have meant that in terms of being able to convert speech into text, machines have recently become extremely accurate. Before that time, machines would have difficulty in recognising the actual words spoken, let alone be able to derive any meaning from them. Hence, voice interaction with a machine was a slow and frustrating experience which meant that most users would try it once and then revert to keyboard. With much more accurate voice recognition, this is beginning to change as voice is now a reliable and easy-to-use method of text input into a machine.

Unfortunately, to meaningfully enhance the man/ machine interface in the automobile, voice recognition needs to improve significantly beyond mere recognition and evolve into understanding. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in because to be really useful, the machine has to be able to understand and respond as if the user was talking to another human. Today this is very far from the case, and even the best digital assistants are extremely limited in terms of what they can understand even though they can accurately identify almost every word spoken. Once this has been conquered, then there is scope for substantial usage of voice in the vehicle. At the moment, this is the lead contender to drive in-vehicle usage but it is quite possible that autonomy may come first which would render efforts in this direction moot.

10 years of automotive excellence

The innovation departments of many of the world’s most well-renowned OEMs have drawn on Cogniance expertise in co-creating their digital services. Over the last ten years, we’ve had a hand in cutting edge experiences that are familiar to drivers the world over, and built prototypes that have informed the development and direction of crucial strategic initiatives.

Contact our automotive experts to hear how we can contribute to your innovation processes and to learn more about our extensive experience in the automobility space.

Know someone who might be interested?
Share this article.