Although the Cadillac XTS, the latest transformative product in the Cadillac sedan lineup, will achieve levels of success primarily on the merits of its sheet metal and style, on its performance and its ergonomics, there is another factor of the car that will make a tremendous difference in the driver and passenger experience, a technological development that leverages electronics in a clean, sensible, uncluttered way.
It’s called “CUE”: Cadillac User Experience.
Yes, that sounds somewhat clunky in full terminology (automotive OEMs seem to have a problem with their high-tech nomenclature). But it is anything but clunky in execution.
Mike Hichme, User Interface Group manager, General Motors, explains that the development of the infotainment system started four years ago, even before the first-generation iPhone (which launched in June 2007). The program really came onto its own in 2008, when a crew of Cadillac designers and engineers rode with 32 actual drivers for six months, logging their habits and concerns when it came to how they interfaced with their vehicles.
These learnings, as well as those gleaned from studying the latest in hardware and software in the consumer electronics world, including field trips to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, led to what was to become CUE. It is worth recalling that the design theme for Cadillac is “Art & Science,” so of the products produced by General Motors, Cadillac is the one that has the highest levels of technological achievement in its vehicles. For example, when OnStar debuted in 1995, Cadillac was the first GM brand to offer it. CUE consists of three elements:
1. A steering wheel with controls. This includes a five-way controller on the right side to navigate the cluster display (the next point) flanked by buttons for audio controls; a five-way controller on the left side for cruise control flanked by buttons for voice recognition, phone hang-up, and the heated steering wheel.
2. 12.3-in. LCD reconfigurable gauge cluster. In place of mechanical gauges (e.g., speedometer, tachometer), drivers are given the option of selecting from four distinctive arrays: Simple, Enhanced, Balanced, Performance. The style of the display can match that of the driver. The driver can also have the integration of information that she deems most important (e.g., tire pressure and XM station).
3. 8-in. LCD touch screen. This is where the Art & Science comes to the fore.
Hichme says the objective they worked toward was developing something that is capable, convenient and easy to use, something that would be familiar to consumers who have regular interactions with smartphones and now tablets. He makes two points that drive this home: “Some vehicles have 23 buttons for the radio” and “Consumers aren’t used to center knobs when working with other devices.” People are now used to touching and tapping, flicking and swiping. They are used to uniformity and regularity, with clarity and simplicity.
So there are really two aspects to CUE: (1) the physical object and (2) the interface.
The physical object is remarkable for several reasons. First of all, as Stu Norris, design manager, points out, “This is a fully capacitive screen versus the resistance type, which is common in vehicles now.” The capacitive screen is like one you would find on an iPhone. It makes use of the electrical conductivity of a finger on the surface of the glass that’s coated with a conductive material. This allows the tapping for selecting something and the swiping through lists that are now common in consumer devices. (The resistance types of screens essentially have two conductive layers that are separate; when the screen is depressed, this causes the two layers to meet, causing a change in electrical current, and, say, the radio station selected.) What’s more, the CUE screen has proximity sensing: it functionally “wakes up” as the operator gets her finger close to the screen, preparing itself for action.
One of the issues with capacitive screens is their performance under cold weather conditions, not only from the point of view that if you are wearing a pair of gloves, the electrical conductivity of your digits is insulated, but that the performance of the screen isn’t as effective. As for the first, there is little that can be done about it (although there are gloves available with a material on the tip of the pointer finger that generates static electricity and so allows screen use). As for the second, the screen has been tested to -40°F, unlike consumer devices that tend to be used in more benign conditions than cars.
The screen is remarkably clear and bright. There is 24-bit color depth. And Norris says that there is “1,000-nit brightness.” That’s not a typo. “Nit.” He explains that it is a measure of luminance, or candelas per square meter (cd/m2). In response to the blank look, he goes on to say that the screen is twice as bright as an iPad and five times brighter than a laptop.
Although the capacitive approach is both familiar and useful, there is something to be said for physically knowing that an input has been registered. So there is what is claimed to be an industry-first: haptic feedback. That is, when a virtual button is depressed, there is actually a pulsation of the capacitive faceplate and screen so that the user gets tactile feedback of the action.
One of the things that they did with the layout of the interface is to focus primarily on audio, navigation, phone, and climate. The icons for these are consistent on the screens. There is also consistency to the way the subscreens appear.
Hichme says that while some vehicle manufacturers are trying to provide voice-control systems that can do all manner of things, they have decided to limit what the system can do, limiting it to the phone, media, and navigation system. This limitation is actually a benefit. Hichme says that in other systems it is necessary to use what is called a “directed dialog.” This means that the user must talk through a set sequence for the system to understand. CUE uses “finite state grammar.”
Consequently the user can simply talk; there is natural speech recognition.
Which brings us back to the consumer electronics-like experience of the CUE.
In April, 2010, Steve Jobs wrote on the Apple website: “New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too).”
Seems like the CUE developers have created a winner.