With the digitization of car interiors and the continuing addition of more and more electronic systems, the way a driver interacts with the systems and operates or adjusts them has been changing. For decades, mechanical systems used mechanically-actuated knobs and levers or pushbutton and rocker switches and generations of drivers have used them.
No more knobs and levers
With the new generation of cars, those knobs and switches have been disappearing, typically replaced by icons on touchscreens. No longer does a driver have to turn a knob to make the temperature higher or lower – it can be done by touching a display screen, just like on a smartphone. Or physical interaction might not even be necessary as many cars now have intelligent voice command systems.
When developing the latest Nissan Ariya all-electric crossover, its designers and engineers didn’t just consider the ergonomics involved in reaching toward the dashboard. They were determined to create a new look and feel for controls that drivers generally take for granted. This required a rethink of cabin space, touch and positioning.
Controls beneath the surfaces
Taking advantage of an all-electric powertrain layout, the Ariya’s interior was crafted to be open, and spacious, a cabin with a sense of calm and serenity. Part of that design is a dashboard free of traditional buttons. The wood-grained trim bisecting the dashboard comes to life upon starting the Ariya, illuminating a set of environmental controls that reside just beneath the dashboard’s surface.
Haptic feedback, like a smartphone
Utilizing a new generation of haptic feedback controls, these subtly integrated buttons open a world of possibilities in the relationship between function and design. In the same way that we interact with a smartphone display to navigate and engage with apps, haptic feedback buttons in the Ariya react to touch, communicating through fingertip vibrations. When adjusting the Ariya’s climate controls and drive modes, for example, the driver will interact with a familiar set of icons. Yet, because the points of interaction are felt and heard, they can remain focused on the road.
The design team’s decision to integrate haptic feedback into the Ariya follows the car’s underlying design concept of ‘Timeless Japanese Futurism’, which takes a distinctive Japanese approach to design, conveying a simple yet powerfully modern impression.
“We created a clean space by blending the haptic controls with the grain of the interior’s woodgrain finish. We did this in a way that didn’t affect the performance of the controls, allowing us to achieve both functionality and an attractive appearance,” said a Senior Designer at Nissan, Hideki Tago.
“By applying a woodgrain pattern to the plastic panels with a hydro-printing process, we gave them a very realistic wood-like feeling. At the same time, this allowed transparent icons to come to life when illuminated,” he explained.
Integrating technology into design
With the Ariya design team’s final goal laid out, it was the engineering team’s responsibility to make this sci-fi concept a reality. The process began with an exhaustive breakdown of the technology itself. Haptic feedback buttons are grouped into two specific areas in the Ariya — on the main dashboard and on the adjustable centre armrest. The goal was to not only integrate the technology into the cabin design as a means of wowing passengers, but also to give the technology a natural and responsive feel for a wide variety of drivers.
Following extensive testing, the team settled on electrostatic buttons that are not only bigger than traditional haptic controls, but also more broadly spaced. This allows for a realistic and intuitive feeling for users, and also generates a kind of air pressure ‘kick’. This amplifies the tactile feedback with the click sensation of a traditional mechanical button, despite no traditional physical button being involved.
Then came the fine-tuning of the vibrations and sounds. That’s right — sounds. “Vibration and sound are inseparable,” explained Tomotaka Igarashi, the engineer in charge of the Ariya’s interior HMI (Human-Machine Interface) development. “It may seem obvious, but this challenged our team to develop a unique sound that would match the expectations of the driver while also designing it to be as pleasant as possible.”
Such attention to detail in an all-electric crossover is a necessity as the minimal sound emitted by the electric powertrain means that the sounds developed by the team will be clearly heard while driving. The development of the haptic controls required that every possible scenario be tested repeatedly to ensure easy use for a wide range of drivers, especially since the Ariya will sell in different regions of the world. That meant extensive testing by people with different size fingers and fingernail lengths, and with different button-pressure strengths and engagement angles. Gloved hands were also tested to ensure button activation.