GM Designer Talks the Future of GMC, Defends Touch-Sensitive Controls

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With the restyled 2013 Acadia SUV that debuted at last week's Chicago Auto Show, GMC could begin to graduate from what it's been for too long: a brand of Chevrolet clones.

Parent company GM has said for decades it wants to move beyond badge engineering — slotting the same car with minimal changes into its various brands — and the Acadia shows promise.

The Acadia rides the same platform as the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave, and up through the 2012 model, overall quality has mirrored the Traverse. It begs the question: Why not buy the better-equipped Chevrolet for the same price? But that has changed.

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The 2013 Acadia's premium materials include stitched faux leather atop the doors and dashboard. Denali trim levels, which GM says account for 30% of Acadia sales, adorn the interior with real aluminum.

Dave Lyon, GM's global director of executive design, calls the Acadia "a great indication” for what’s to come at GMC. Lyon, who hails from the Chicago suburbs, spoke with Cars.com last week at the Chicago Auto Show.

"We will move cabins more upscale, we will use more premium materials," he says of GMC. "There really is a very unique position out there for GMC, where it has a very serious, real, authentic truck credibility."

GM hasn't always been faithful to that. "We didn't have to keep GMC around," Lyon says, but "this is a very unique brand. When we differentiate it more, we're able to get more price."

Customers will "pay more for this exclusive, premium truck," he says. "Where we haven't differentiated much, we don't make much more of a margin than the Chevy does. And it turns out that's not good business."

Touch-Sensitive Controls

Among the Acadia's changes are touch-sensitive center controls that mimic parts of the touch-sensitive center panel in Cadillac's new XTS and ATS sedans. We've objected to our long-term Chevy Volt's touch-sensitive buttons, which are less responsive than physical knobs and buttons. The same goes for Ford's often-criticized MyFord Touch, for which Lyon gives "a lot of respect" to Ford. But he defends GM's touch-sensitive buttons, saying they're easier to use because of bigger fonts and simpler menus – something Ford, incidentally, is trying to address with its latest version of MyFord Touch.

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"We get into discussions with the electrical engineers," Lyon says. "The system is capable of conveying all kinds of information, conveying all kinds of choices and options. The problem is if you explore them all … you start blowing the 2 second rule, which is kind of the agreement we have with [The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], which is kind of [that] any task that you're doing with the center stack shouldn’t take more than 2 seconds."

As for Cadillac's fully touch-sensitive system? It's something the brand needed.

"Somebody that's buying a Cadillac wants cutting edge," Lyon says. "You can see that with BMW and iDrive, right? Most journalists hate it. Maybe they've learned to like it by now. Maybe they've gotten used to it. [But] If the vehicle didn't offer that, you'd be not on the cutting edge of technology."

Comments 

skinner

So, you have to offer something that people hate to be on the cutting edge of technology?

Skinner,
I'm kind of with you. I just spent a few nights in a Land Rover LR4 (tough right?) and it has huge knobs for audio and climate controls. They feel solid, look nice and most importantly work effortlessly. If that's what you're selling to folks buying the luxury SUV why would you do something else for the everyman?

Lance

Skinner and Thomas,
Totally agree. I will not even consider a vehicle with these types of controls even though I might love the rest of the vehicle. It's not an inablilty to adjust to new technology, it's the sloppiness of the controls. Whenever you use a touchsensitive control to "slide" for adjustment you always end up going back and forth until you get the setting you want. All the time with your hand off the wheel and your concentration affected. Some will say, "well, you can use voice commands". Well, I'd rather just reach and twist a dial once than push a button(same amount of time to reach and twist a knob) on the steering wheel and then issue commands to turn down the heat and hope the system understands my voice and terminology. How stupid and overly complicated.

sheth

The reality is luxury vehicles are expected to offer something newer (if not better) than regular cars. People who get in a luxury car and find an interface that is unchanged from what was offered 10 years ago will not be happy. Now auto journalists basically praise the latest iterations of idrive after hating the first version. In spite of the negative press over MFT it seems like Ford is selling plenty of vehicles with that system. People like technology and they like being the first in their circles to have something new. Auto writers drive a car for a day or two and complain about stuff that an owner would become familiar with over the course of weeks or months. When people think something is cool or innovative they will give that system leeway and will patiently learn how to use it properly.

sheth, that logic only works when there is some advantage to the change. There is absolutely no advantage to a button that's always in the same place but that you can't actually push.

Lance

Except most luxury carmakers do not have this and aren't going to it anytime soon. idrive isn't the same thing. It's more of a mouse type affair while Lexus has something similar. But I know of no real luxury car makers that are using these touch sensitive sliding controls. Most true luxury cars tend to go for quality not glitz and I believe that luxury car buyers aren't demanding this either. Ford has popular small cars that techy youngsters are buying. Not the case with luxury cars.

Amuro Ray

The real problem is, IMHO, that GM and car makers alike are going thru' the same growing pain as with many computer applications in the early 90's -

NO REAL LIFE STUDY ON HCI.

Human Computer Interaction/Design is an art, a legitimate software design, and a must have for efficient usage on hardware / software interface.

The way I see it, auto makers try to jam everything in their telematics system, but don't give a rat on how the drivers can use it WITHOUT taking their eyes off the road, during driving.

A visual interface requires the ability to view, something that our fingers don't have the correct "senses" to do.

Knobs and buttons requires the ability to feel, something perfect for our fingers. In fact, touch sense are intuitive to our brain that we don't really need to divert our brain power to "figure out" what's going on (an excellent example is how we touch hot stuff and retract our fingers - that burning sensation actually not processed by our brain!).

Good technology implemented for the wrong purpose...

sheth

Lance:

wrong. Licoln has MFT in some vehicles already and MKS and MKT are getting it this spring. Cadillac has it in the upcoming XTS and ATS. Lexus has the mouse controller and its annoying to use and imprecise. Its not better or faster than conventinal buttons. Same goes for the German systems. In luxury cars with navigation you've been able to control vehicle functions via a screen for years- even though physical buttons were still there. There is no actual advantage to ANY of these systems vs real buttons- but luxury brands keep using them.

sheth

BTW, based on the sales of smartphones and tablets I find it hard to believe that american consumers are showing much resistance to touch senstive controls vs physical buttons or keys. Most of the hottest consumer devices DONT have any buttons. This is simply transferring over to cars.

sheth,

The important point about iDrive, the Lexus mouse and other systems like that is that they don't replace the primary controls. You don't need to use the mouse to change the radio station, or iDrive to adjust your fan speed. A touch-sensitive button, however, inserts itself into even the most basic functions.

Furthermore, those systems have a point: When a car has a lot of features, they can't all be accessed at once, and a series of screens is needed to work through them. Touch-sensitive controls are just regular buttons that are much more finicky to use.

Amuro Ray

@ Brady Holt,

More importantly, recall the 1st thing the driving instructor told anyone once the vehicle was engaged into D, with your foot off the brake:

KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD.

Isn't that why the reason for such a large windshield, and a much smaller center console to fiddle anything with?

Rockaby

And if there's touch-sensitive screens, how in the world can you keep your eyes on the road? With buttons you can count "Okay, I want the third from the left" and keep your eyes on the road while you do so.

sheth

Brady:

First of all, Idrive only added buttons to control most functions because of complaints. You should know idrive was intended to replace most buttons inside the car. That was the whole point. You don't need a controller when a car has a lot of features. Cadillac, lincoln and most lexus models don't have controller based interfaces. The gs is only the 3rd lexus to get the silly mouse controller. Its not a time saver, its not intuitive and its not necessary at all. Many of the functions folks are so concerned about can be controlled via steering wheel buttons anyway. I really don't attempt to adjust things in my car without looking even though I have real buttons in my car. Bottom line is using these touch sensitive buttons shouldn't be any more distracting than using real buttons. Its much ado about nothing really.

"Idrive only added buttons to control most functions because of complaints."

Exactly. Now it's not a problem.

sheth

brady:

You are missing the point. Idrive originally took functions that were controlled by one button or knob and buried them within an interface that required the use of the controller to make adjustments. THAT is why they were forced to add buttons. This touch senstive interface isn't replicating what idrive did 10 years ago. Basic functions are still controlled by pressing a "button" on the center stack. And as noted, if the hard buttons on Idrive make that system palatable you can say the same for the steering wheel controls in the Acadia. The stereo and BT interface can be controlled from the wheel without touching the center stack. Only climate control cant be changed from the steering wheel, but with auto climate control I dont see that as a major issue.

The point is that touch-sensitive controls, like the original iDrive, take common functions and make them demonstrably more difficult to use for no benefit. None.

sheth

How is it more difficult to hit a sensor that a button? The problem with MFT is that its responses were too slow and there was too much going on within the interface. We know from phones and other devices that its possible to make a responsive and accurate touch sensitive surface. The virtual button isn't the issue here, there is no added complication from a user standpoint. These buttons have nothing to do with idrive which purposely buried common functions wthin a menu system navigated by a controller.

I think he's referring to the 15-second rule, a recommendation by the Society of Automotive Engineers. More info here:
http://www.umich.edu/~driving/guidelines/2364_final.pdf

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