How a curious substitution in Mercedes’ MBUX has made the whole system better
Squeezed onto the cramped Mercedes stand during the first day at CES 2018, I was immediately struck by one thing: there were no cars. I had come expecting to see the new MBUX system installed in a new A-Class, but peering through the throngs of CES attendees, I could see just three drivers' seats with wraparound infotainment system, and some integrated stools where Mercedes employees could demo the system. It was a bit jarring to see just the disembodied in-car interface, something that’s never been been done on quite this scale at a major auto show. And with no dancing girls or flashing lights, even more surprising was the size of the crowd waiting for a demo: a clear sign the cars' in-dash technology is now just as important as the styled box of metal and plastic surrounding it.
I never did get a demo that day — the long wait not fitting with my busy schedule — but I was able to eavesdrop on someone else’s. My first impression was of a slightly updated interface with the larger screens, higher resolution and 3D graphics we've come to expect, but I also noticed something fairly shocking: Mercedes had abandoned their long-used (and generally well-received) rotary knob input device for a touchpad with one that appeared suspiciously like the much-maligned Lexus controller. While the previous COMAND center console had sprouted a touchpad on its hand-rest a few years ago, the rotary controller was still at the core of its system, and was seen as the quickest and easiest method for controlling the many functions of the complex interface.
Adding trendy interface methods like touchscreens and…sigh…gesture controls to a long established HMI is not new in the premium market, with BMW adding them (all) to their previously class-leading iDrive last year, with seemingly little rhyme or reason. But rather than ditch the old controllers and interface methods in favor of something shiny and new, BMW kept everything that was already in place, creating a feature-creep mess of a UI, where any and all methods might work—but any consistency of interaction is completely gone. Maybe Mercedes saw this and learned a lesson from BMW's mistake, but moving from the tried-and-true rotary controller to a touchpad seemed, at first glance, to be a step in the wrong direction. Touchpads, like touchscreens, are considered inferior to rotary knobs in driving conditions because they require more concentration to control than a simple spin-and-click (especially for RHD drivers, using their left hand), and lack the advantage of controlling actions via muscle memory. If the implementation is not proportional to the screen size, meaning users are required to "swipe and reset" to get a cursor to a specific point on the screen, then they also lack precision and require a "doubling down" on concentration by the user. As a result, common tasks are no easier than new ones, and repetitive tasks become massive distractions.
So why would MBUX ditch an established, safe input device for something that's caused other manufacturers nothing but headaches? I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Until I finally got my MBUX demo in Geneva, and things started falling into place.
Despite MBUX's COMAND-inspired styling, the underlying design philosophy has actually been vastly improved. COMAND was never as intuitive as Audi's MMI or BMW's iDrive, but MBUX has in many ways leapfrogged them with the new system for one simple reason—consistency. By adding a touchscreen to its existing lineup, the Mercedes infotainment system, like BMW, could have become an unwieldy mix of interactions: steering wheel controls with directional touchpads like a joystick, the touchscreen using taps, drags and multitouch, a center rotary controller that spins and clicks, and the central touchpad mixing clicks and touch gestures. Three locations, four different input methods. A worst-case scenario for eyes-on-the-road controlling.
But MBUX has done what the other premium brands didn't dare. By simplifying the micro touchpads on the steering wheel buttons and eliminating the central rotary knob, near muscle-memory interaction at all points in the process instantly becomes a reality. By eliminating that most familiar and entrenched feature, they've created "one interaction to control them all". A universal input methodology where swipes and taps on a touchscreen, touchpad or steering wheel button all yield the same results. A system where moving from the screen to the touchpad doesn't require a cognitive reset. A system that lets drivers focus on the road ahead, and not on making awkward and uncomfortable hand motions in mid-air with no haptic feedback. A system that works the way you expect it to, even if it has a long way to go to hit the Apple ideal of an interface that "just works" in an entirely intuitive fashion.
While MBUX is far from perfect — it's still too complex both visually and hierarchically — it’s encouraging to see Mercedes focus on a more holistic user experience, rather than simply add features for the sake of ticking boxes on the spec list. Using new interaction methods, easy customization, and higher-quality screens and graphics, automotive UX can be brought up to the levels that we're familiar with from our smartphones and other tech. Automakers will need to be very aware of the car's unique requirements, balancing new technology with safe operation at speed, convenience and expectations with eyes-on-the-road ease, and fancy toys with functionality. So while Audi's MMI Touch Response and Range Rover's InControl Touch Pro Duo (yes, they're really called that) attempt to replace all of the haptic controls with eyes-off-the-road low-set touchscreens and voice, and BMW throws the kitchen sink of interaction at a decade-old system, Mercedes may have just pulled ahead of the premium pack with an inspired bit of HMI insight.
All that said, they're going to have to take a long hard look at their user interface design before anyone is going to call MBUX a game-changer. The outdated graphics and layout are a huge weak point — and may actually hinder adoption of this vastly improved system, turning away some buyers who will perceive competitor systems as more modern. In a one-test-drive-then-buy world, first impressions matter, and in this sense, MBUX loses out to nearly all its competitors. So what is keeping Mercedes in the dark ages of interface design? In part two of this article, we'll explore some of the issues with MBUX's visual design and even throw out some simple upgrades that could elevate MBUX to a truly world-class system.
Part II of my MBUX will be posted soon, so stay tuned…