The user interface (UI) is the Achilles heel of car design. Outdated, inflexible, and old upon arrival, UI has often been an unintentional time machine, showing drivers of even the newest cars what phones in 1997 looked like. And given that this has been the case, society at large has accepted it. For the last fifteen years (give or take), UI has been a bridge too far, both in usability and appearance. Is a modern, capable, well-designed, future-proof UI really too much to ask?
No. No it is not.
Both the point of contact between driver and vehicle, and a connection to the world outside, the UI is where the driver acts and reacts, plans and responds, and in doing so shapes their entire driving experience.
One of Polestar’s driving forces is to solve challenges and show what’s possible through innovative solutions, modern technology, and ground-breaking design. The UI in the upcoming Polestar 2 is an embodiment of this attitude.
The Polestar 2 will be the first car in the world with a truly future-proof software setup, meaning that not only will it be cutting-edge upon release, it will update often and automatically. How many people would ever buy a smartphone if they knew it would never update or improve? Polestar believes that people should have the same requirements of their cars. The Polestar 2 comes with an Android-based operating system that’s always connected to the internet and receives over-the-air updates just like your smartphone.
The Polestar 2 also features apps, services, and technologies that people already use every day on their smartphones (such as Google Maps and the Google Assistant) which are designed and adapted specifically for an in-vehicle experience. Thanks to the Google Play Store, those apps you use on your phone are also on hand in your car: stream playlists or podcasts, get real-time traffic and weather updates, stay in touch with your nearest and dearest, and more.
It will also come equipped with other features sorely missing in automotive UI. The first of which is a digital voice assistant that is as helpful as it is conversational: Polestar 2 comes with an embedded Google Assistant. From optimising the temperature to picking a song, the Google Assistant lets you control things with your voice, leaving you free to focus on driving. With significant advancements in machine learning, language understanding, and speech recognition, the Assistant can understand and respond to you naturally.
The second feature is something being used in cars all over the world, but on a secondary device. With more than one billion users worldwide, it was a natural choice to make Google Maps the pre-installed navigation app for the Polestar 2. With Google Maps built-in, we’re able to offer useful features like real-time traffic information and location hours while removing the need to consult a phone while driving.
This is all part of the overarching idea that this car is a seamless integration into modern life. Not only is it packed with the most current tech, it will stay current. No more having to remain content with outdated software. Retro has its place, of course, but that place isn’t in a Polestar.
Android OS with over-the-air updates
Google pre-installed, including Google Maps, Google Play Store, and Google Assistant
There were a number of other hurdles on the way to the delivery of this UI, not the least of which was design. “UIs tend not to be driver oriented,” says Amil Gasanin, the graphic designer responsible for the Polestar 2 UI design. “They also have comparatively small touch areas, taking more of your attention which should be on the road.” Accidents can occur from the smallest lapse in concentration, and many a fender has been bent as a result of trying to tweak the in-car temperature or listen to a different song. One of the simple yet impactful design choices was to enlarge the buttons. “A bigger touch area is always beneficial, and helps to minimise driver distraction,” explains Aloka Muddukrishna, who is responsible for Polestar 2’s User Experience.
Finally, a UI which is intuitive, well designed and driver-centric.
Another UI design issue is how to structure menus. Navigating a labyrinth of collapsible menus is taxing enough even when you aren’t behind the wheel of a vehicle. It’s positively dangerous to build menus in an UI which are so convoluted that it makes scrolling through them akin to leafing through Leonardo Da Vinci’s recovered manuscripts. Polestar’s answer to this was simple and elegant. Instead of unwieldy collapsible menus, you have a four-tile grid system. Each tile has default app groupings which can be customised, and three large buttons for quick actions; shortcuts which avoid tedious (and dangerous) slogging through menus. Instead of riotous colour schemes and frenetic font combinations, it’s minimalist and designed for optimal performance. Pure Polestar, in other words.
Another design choice which makes the UI more driver-centric, while reducing time spent not focusing on the road, is a screen containing the apps accessed most often. “This reduces the amount of interactions needed to reach the most-used functions, for example the 360° camera,” continues Muddukrishna.
To talk further about the UI, the focus now needs to shift to access functionality. Namely, the phone-as-key solution. The Polestar 2 will make use of the driver’s phone to access the car, leading to greater accessibility and fewer hardware complications. It’s yet another innovation which allows the Polestar 2 to adapt to the driver, and not the opposite. The UI wakes up incrementally, responding to the presence and position of the driver and mimicking different key positions. It is the driver, and their phone as authentication device, which enable the UI to be so interactive. As the driver approaches, the car senses the presence of the phone and the display wakes up, showing limited information such as charge status and remaining range. Once the driver enters the car and sits down, intelligent sensors in the driver seat signal to the UI to wake up even further, granting access to all of the car’s functionality short of driving. Finally, the brake pedal is depressed and the shifter is moved, and the engine starts.
The UI is how the driver communicates with the car, and in doing so, shapes and controls their experience. With the Polestar 2, there’s finally a UI which is as modern, responsive and well-designed as the car it’s in.