July 26, 2013

News & Features

Instrument panels simplified: more technology but fewer buttons

New York Times News Service

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Before and after: The instrĀ­ument panel in the 2014 Acura MDX, right, has far fewer contrĀ­ols than the 2011 version, left. (Honda)

The engineers working on Honda's new Acura MDX luxury SUV were obsessed with giving customers more — more space in the rear seat, more fuel economy from a high-tech engine and, above all, more apps, maps and connectivity.

But there was one feature they wanted less of: buttons.

In an effort to simplify the newest Honda vehicle on the market, the product team was determined to streamline the instrument panel. The previous MDX had 41 buttons, but the new model would have just nine.

The change was emblematic of the challenge confronting automakers in the age of the connected car. How does a car company give customers the technology they crave without overwhelming them with complicated controls that can impair their ability to drive safely?

"We are trying to give our customers what they want in a way that's going to be safe and make sense," says Steven Feit, a senior Honda engineer on the project. "That's the balance we are trying to get to."

The car has become a mobile computer packed with new entertainment options, Internet access and a dizzying array of apps that help drivers avoid traffic jams, find parking spots and locate the nearest coffee shop.

Federal regulators are struggling to keep pace. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees auto safety, recently issued voluntary guidelines for carmakers to limit the visual and mental distractions that new technology can create for drivers.

Basic connectivity — such as linking a cellphone to a vehicle's sound system — can be found in some of the least-expensive mainstream models.

And carmakers have learned some hard lessons about pushing ahead with new, unproved technology. Ford, for example, has had to revise its popular Sync system to mitigate distractions and make it easier for consumers to use.

Each new version of a car presents an opportunity to correct previous missteps. The 2014 MDX, which was released this month, represents what Honda says is an effort to create "synergy between man and machine."

The new MDX has built-in cellphone technology that not only delivers a wide range of entertainment and Internet functions, but also connects drivers directly to an Acura concierge who can locate a nearby restaurant and make reservations for dinner.

A voice-recognition feature allows drivers to select a destination for the navigation system or choose a phone number to call without taking their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel.

And eliminating physical buttons on the car's console was crucial to improving safety. Too many buttons created too many decisions for a driver to make while the car was in motion. The new model limits buttons to major functions, like controlling the temperature.
Because there are more distractions built into the vehicle, the car has to assist more in the act of driving.

The MDX, for example, has sensors that warn drivers of potential collisions, alert them when they stray from their lane and reduce speed when an accident is imminent. An advanced option package includes adaptive cruise control, which can automatically stop the car if the vehicle in front of it suddenly brakes to a full stop.

Automakers are sifting through the options that technology firms are eager to install in their vehicles. But more data for drivers could raise the level of distraction. And that is a trade-off that carmakers are becoming increasingly sensitive to.

"What does the customer really want?" says Jim Keller, a Honda engineer who studies distracted driving. "They want to do more in their car with less effort and complexity."
And as complex a machine as the new Acura MDX is, one of its prime selling points is pretty basic. The driver can be more connected than ever — but with fewer buttons to push.

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