Volvo: proving the automotive touchscreen can be safe

Volvo-SPA-HMIVolvo’s button-packed interiors have been a grumble of mine in recent years. It’s irritating that such a safety-focused brand should make it so difficult to programme the sat nav or turn on the heated rear window.

But are touchscreens – which, by their nature, you have to take your eyes off the road in order to use – really the answer? When I saw the huge screen that’s the centrepiece of the new Concept ES Estate, I wondered how the safety masters would justify it.

But there’s no justification required. Rather, it’s sound and considered insight that’s behind Volvo’s decision to go touchscreen on the new XC90 (whose interior architecture this concept so happily previews).

Robin Page, who I know from when he was at Bentley (he moved to Volvo just under a year ago to become interior design director) was clear: “The touchscreen is the gemstone within the car: all other architecture flows around it.

“The hardest part of interior design is the engineering and placement of switch parts. With this, the entire sculpture can be formed around the ‘i control unit’ – we can really perfect the ergonomics.

“We also place crucial areas of driver focus in the display screen within the dial pack, right in front of the driver.” Crucial messages are in the line of sight, then.

But it’s the secondary centre touchscreen area where the real innovation lies…

A swipe to complexity

Volvo’s secret is to that it’s the first to introduce genuine swipe functionality to its screen, something the Tesla Model S doesn’t even have yet. Just as in an iPad or tablet computer, swiping sideways takes you to different screens. A central home screen is a master hub for sat nav, audio, infotainment, and each layer can be expanded at a tap. Swipe and pinch to go in deep further still, tap it again to minimise it, or simply jab the home button wherever you are to go back to the start.

“We have four tiers of prioritised information, with dropdowns for each, and a ‘hard’ home button for ease of use.”

Sound familiar? Intentionally. And as more people use iPhones than use cars, this system is thus already familiar to people. It’s logical, it’s understandable, it’s intuitive.

“With the younger generation, using a physical button may actually be more alien for them,” said Page. Yes, buttons could actually be more dangerous than touchscreens. I wasn’t expecting that.

But, after swiping and scrolling with Volvo’s future touchscreen infotainment system, I now think he may just have a point.

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