Volkswagen Magazine


Beloved machine.

How do people communicate with their cars? The BUDD-e, Volkswagen’s e-van concept study, provides completely new answers. One of the key people on the BUDD-e team, HMI developer Dr Astrid Kassner, explains how this came about.

Text Joachim Hentschel
Photos Theodor Barth

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the interface between humans and cars is to watch Knight Rider. In this famous television series from the 1980s, the main character – played by David Hasselhoff – talks with his car KITT like he would with his best mate. KITT chats back, responding in superbly human form to its owner’s troubles, and finds every destination on automatic pilot. Not only that, it has a cash machine on board that spits out dollars.

How does this stand up to a reality check? Around 30 years later, a good many of these special effects are ready for series production. Voice control and various driver assistance systems are standard features in the latest generations of cars.

Driverless vehicles are being tested on the roads of California. Even better, some of the extra features of 2016 surpass the dreams of people in the 1980s. For example, the Volkswagen BUDD-e, an e-study recently presented at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, enables drivers and passengers to access nearly all the functions of their smart-home networks from the road. While in the car, you can regulate the heating system in your home and check the number of drinks in the fridge. Not even KITT could do that.

Infotainment: The driver sees all the important information on three central monitors – including images from the electronic exterior mirrors.

A glimpse inside the “seat box” simulator: virtually all operations are intuitive. The BUDD-e lets drivers choose whether to give their commands via touchscreen, voice or gesture control – for an individualized HMI.

The human-machine interface is what HMI stands for. It is one of the most exciting aspects of the sea change we are currently undergoing in our move toward electromobility and connected cars. As users, we will benefit from the fact that our cars are acquiring ever more features, and that they are even becoming hubs for our personal communication networks. 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 paying attention to the traffic?

In simple terms, the job of Kassnerʼs team is to ensure that we can interact with the cars of the future as effortlessly and intuitively as we do with a really good smartphone.

How do people engage in dialogue with their cars?

Kassner has a doctorate in psychology. It might sound surprising that someone with such a background should end up in automotive development – but on second thought there is a compelling logic to it. “HMI is all about the principles of interaction between people and technology,” says Kassner. “And you need psychology to represent the human side of this interaction. What can humans do well? Where do they need support? What distracts them? And let’s not forget, what do they enjoy?”

Astrid Kassner in the “seat box”. This is where developers simulate the interior of the BUDD-e.

Displays are no longer fixed in place – everything is fluid.

After joining Group Research in 2012, Kassner switched to development in the spring of 2015, and specifically to the electronics department – where she started working straight away on the big BUDD-e project. 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, and in time for the CES in early 2016. Something like a campervan 4.0, that not only has a long range on fully electric power, but also has the highest possible level of connectivity and digital comfort on board.

One of the major differences from the old automotive HMI is the following: the instrument cluster (speedometer, fuel gauge and so on), 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 now all been brought together onto three digital driver displays. Any similarities to the innovative operating panel in the Golf R Touch study are not a coincidence – although the BUDD-e’s approach is more comprehensive. Whatever has priority at any given moment during the drive (such as the navigation system, battery charge level, phone display or radio) is to be shifted to the central position – and then back out again. Moreover, back-seat passengers also have their own interactive options.

The BUDD-e’s electronics concept was developed by a special team. The key to success in e-mobility is having people from different disciplines work together.

“During 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 HMI core group had nine experts who maintained constant contact and ran continuous reality checks with the designers and the hardware and software engineers. In December 2015, the BUDD-e team travelled to Las Vegas. Everything was ready right on time for the car’s presentation at the CES.

Individual components of the BUDD-e’s sensational HMI will not be ready for series production until 2019 at the earliest. By then the team will have developed its ideas even further. The potential number and scope of functions and the information density in the ideal e-car will continue to increase. Thanks to new display technology, separate screens will soon be merging into ever larger surfaces – while some information will disappear from classical screens and instead be projected directly onto the surroundings by means of augmented reality visuals.

“With all of these visions for the future there’s one thing you can’t lose sight of,” says HMI expert 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 cars and drivers will probably become closer than we can imagine today. But then again, back in 1985 no one ever thought we’d be taking our phones to bed. 

The technology must never intimidate the driver. Which also means it has to be fun!