The Haptic Drive

Umeå Institute of DesignSI


Concept / Student


Miha Feuš


A recent trend in the automotive industry is going towards infotainment systems that are based solely on touch-screens. While this makes interfaces more flexible and opens up new possibilities, it also comes with a few drawbacks. Interacting with a touch-screen requires a lot of visual attention compared to buttons and knobs, which is not the best thing when you are driving. Studies suggest that 25% to 50% of near-misses and accidents happen because the driver is visually distracted. The aim of this project was to augment touch-screens with haptic feedback to reduce glance time away from the road, without sacrificing the flexibility that touch-screens have introduced to car interfaces.

The main challenge was to improve touch-screens with haptics that don’t have to be learned, which can be tricky since the information, that can be obtained this way, is limited. But it’s a challenge worth accepting in order to make driving a safer experience and reduce the risk of accidents. This project should also help create a paradigm shift in thinking about car interfaces and urge car manufacturers to put more emphasis on a good experience, rather than the amount of features.


Most of the research phase of this project went into understanding drivers distraction, and their wishes and needs. This was the key activity that let to most of the innovation presented in this project. The conclusion from interviewing drivers and car dealers was that the majority of people doesn’t care about extra features – besides the basic climate control, music, phone and navigation. It’s the manufacturers and marketing departments that do. The growing amount of features is also one of the reasons car interfaces are growing in complexity.

A lot of research went into understanding the sensing limitations of the human body. Tactile and kinaesthetic senses have been researched and tested for the type of information they can carry, their bandwidth and resolution. The right kind of electric actuators were then selected based on those findings. Although the climate control haptics in this concept might seem a bit gimmicky, users in tests understood them in a fraction of a second, without visual cues or explanations. There were similar reactions to other tested haptic feedback. But in order for them to get implemented, every idea and each kind of feedback had to satisfy the users through rigorous testing.


Most people who have seen the project or tried the prototype asked when they could have this in their own cars. Many of them added that their current car interfaces are not as simple and intuitive to use. There has also been a lot of interest from car manufacturers, automotive suppliers, design consultancies, researchers and the general public ever since the project has started. Technologically and as a solution to the safety problem, this project has delivered on its intended goals.

The prototype is currently being used by the German automotive design consultancy Icon Incar GmbH, to show off what haptics are capable of and to inspire new thinking for their clients in the automotive industry. How big the impact is really going to be will be seen in the coming years, since it takes the automotive industry some time to adopt and develop new systems and vehicles.

One of the reasons why manufacturers are switching from buttons and knobs to touch-screens is to save tooling and manufacturing costs. And that is why this project has a great chance to inspire new thinking, since it shows that quality haptic feedback can be facilitated using cheaper, off the shelf components.


The research phase included going through existing automotive user interface research, talking to experts in haptics, users, car dealers and tapping into the know-how of the biggest automotive design consultancy, to help frame the exact problem.

In order to be implemented into the final concept, each idea had to pass through several steps. It had to be feasible, had to mechanically work as imagined, give the intended feedback and be understood and enjoyed by the users. The hexagonal knob shape for example, was decided upon by the users, through testing over 20 different knob shapes. Simplifying the graphic elements was an iterative process that created dozens of layout, shape and colour variations. All the prototypes were driven by either an Arduino or by analogue electronics and mechanics. The final prototype is running as an AdobeAIR application on an Android tablet, with two Arduinos that handle all the haptic I/O and a bunch of other electronic components. Most of which were never intended for the use in haptics. It took four iterations of 3D prints to get the mechanical movements and click feedback just right. All those tools were used because they enabled a quick move from exploration to finished prototype.


The Interaction Awards are an initiative of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), a global community of more than 120,000 individuals worldwide dedicated to the professional practice of Interaction Design. Find out how to join your local group and get involved at

© 2012 - 2023 Interaction Design Association