The Tesla-ification of the Spirited Driving Experience

I’ve been obsessed with the Scion FR-S/Toyota 86/Subaru BRZ for years. To me, they embody Toyota and Subaru’s commitment to the purebred concept of the roadster, with front engine, rear wheel drive, and playful handling as the most important aspects of the design. This design philosophy translates into a bare-bones, functional interior with minimal creature comforts and simple hard controls for climate and media.

Another positive for car enthusiasts is that the vehicle lends itself well to modifications—Toyota and Subaru knew their target audience would be car enthusiasts who’d love to tinker with their vehicle, and made it easy for them to access the mechanical and electronic parts of the vehicle. And tinker they did—a simple web search will yield hundreds of different possibilities, from headlights/tail lights to exhaust to wheels, even swapping out the engine!

One surprising modification I came across was a new(ish) touchscreen head unit for the Subaru BRZ aptly named “Brainiac,” that combines the media and climate controls into one sleek-looking touchscreen interface.

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The “Brainiac” piqued my interest because we spend a lot of time at Lextant discussing how perceptions of a vehicle’s “coolness” or “futuristic quality” ends up being translated into “less buttons and knobs”; more specifically into “like the Tesla with it’s big touchscreen that has everything on it.”

As Human Factors Researchers, we know that the trade-off of this “Tesla-ification” is that you lose the immediacy of access that buttons and knobs provide. To put it simply, hard controls like buttons and knobs may appear to be “old school” and “clunky,” but you don’t have to look at them to operate them, which lets you pay attention to the road.

Paying attention to the road is an important aspect of the spirited driving experience: cutting through canyons and navigating hairpin turns. Knowing how much grip you have through the tires because of how low you are to the ground. I wondered how the community would react.

What I found was a split. Some passionate drivers, like Reddit user TurbochargedSquirrel, shared my view:

Others seemed open to the idea of a touchscreen interface just to add a bit more flair to their vehicles.

This split is something we’ve seen in our research for a while now—people who prefer simplicity and want to focus on the driving primarily, and those who want all the bells and whistles that modern technology has to offer. My reservations with replacing traditional controls with touchscreen interfaces remain, but to the credit of the developers of Brainiac, they have added touch gestures to their interface to allow the user to perform actions without having to look.

So what’s the best of both worlds? Is there a way to maintain the spirit of driving intact while also moving away from old fashioned controls? Designer Kasper Kessels’ concept might provide the answer. With help from the design department at Renault, he created a concept for incorporating touch gestures into a vehicle’s infotainment that aims to solve the issue of the visual component that touch gestures tend to lack.

In the end, I’d like to pose the question to you—what do you think about the move towards “Tesla-ifying” in-vehicle infotainment systems? Are we attempting to fix something that’s not broken? Is there a way to create an interface that caters to both spirited drivers as well as technophiles?

We’d love to know what you think.

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