Beloved Machine

How do people communicate with their cars? The BUDD-e, Volkswagen’s concept study vehicle, hopes to provide completely new answers. A member of the BUDD-e team, HMI developer Dr. Astrid Kassner, explains how this came about.

Over 30 years after American TV shows dreamed up cars that communicated with humans and found destinations on autopilot, many voice control and driver assistance systems are available features in the latest generations of vehicles. And self-driving vehicles are being tested across America.

Take the Volkswagen BUDD-e, a concept vehicle presented at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. The BUDD-e concept vehicle features a concept version of VW’s Car-Net® App-Connect that could help enable BUDD-e drivers and passengers to operate many smart home functions via the touchscreen interface in the vehicle, including checking the heating system in their homes and verifying if the house door is locked.

One of the most exciting aspects as we move forward with connected cars is the human-machine interface, or HMI. As users, we can benefit when our cars acquire more features. But some questions still remain. Won’t things become too complicated at some point? And how are we to operate such complex vehicles while still maintaining focus on the roads?

In simple terms, the job of Kassner’s team is to answer these questions and work to ensure that future drivers and passengers can interact with the cars of the future as effortlessly and intuitively as they do with smartphones.

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Kassner started working on the BUDD-e project in the Electronics Department of Volkswagen AG in 2015. The challenge for the approximately 40-member development team was to create a concept car that embodied Volkswagen’s vision of the automotive future in both technological and emotional terms—in time for the CES in early 2016. Something that not only had a long range on fully electric power, but also a high level of connectivity and digital comfort on board.

Inside the BUDD-e, the instrument cluster (including the speedometer and fuel gauge), the adjustment lever for the steering wheel, and the infotainment system used to represent strictly defined and separate worlds. But in the BUDD-e, they have been brought together onto three digital driver displays. And back-seat passengers also have their own interactive features.

“Early in the concept phase we kept putting people into the simulator and giving them tasks such as tuning the radio to a certain station,” says Kassner. Her core team had nine members who used learnings from these simulations to continuously educate designers and hardware and software engineers.

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After the CES show, the BUDD-e team continued its work. Individual components of the BUDD-e’s sensational HMI will not be ready for series production for several more years. By then the team anticipates it will have developed its ideas even further.

“With all of these visions for the future, there’s one thing you can’t lose sight of,” says Kassner. “The technology must never be allowed to intimidate the driver. The car should not only be easy to operate—but also fun.”

In the future, the relationship between car and driver will probably become closer than we can imagine today. But then again, 20 years ago, no one ever thought we’d be taking our phones to bed.