Will capacitive touch controls and a user-configurable LCD instrument panel make Cadillac the Cadillac of cars again? That’s the hope of the flagship brand for General Motors with the Cadillac User Interface, or CUE. Cadillac aims to blend technology, ease of use, and luxury in hopes of cracking the top three in sales among luxury cars. After working with one of GM’s cockpit simulators it’s clear that Cadillac is on the right track even as it’s likely to have the teething pains BMW and Audi went through in developing their signature human-machine interfaces. Early adopters of CUE who didn’t study at Georgia Tech may find Rev 1.0 to have a bit too much in-your-face in the interface. Four years of focus groups, research, and design may not be enough for GM to realize how uncomprehending mainstream users can be when it comes to new tech.
CUE faces two challenges: Capacitive touch looks cool in the showroom but it’s a bear to use on bumpy roads. Cadillac probably went overboard in jettisoning switches and knobs in homage to capacitive touch sliders. Drivers will ask, “Hey, where’s the volume knob?” Also, some features are going to take training, such as flicking (the gesture) a piece of info from the 8-inch center stack screen and making it land on the drop-dead gorgeous 12.3-inch LCD display that is the instrument panel. You can think of the displays being like a PC with a dual screen extended display, except the displays are separated by almost a foot so it’s not immediately clear one is an extension of the other when you move a panel with smartphone-like gestures (tap, flick, swipe and spread). When a Cadillac expert ran CUE through its paces, everything worked quickly and smoothly. But it’s the kind of interface — sorry, Cadillac — that isn’t going to be learned without an hour or two of dealer training.
Make that three challenges: CUE’s voice controll likely won’t be as good as Siri. iPhone users who shop the new Cadillacs are going to wonder why something that costs 100 times as much isn’t as smart as an iPhone. Cadillac’s answer is going to be that they’re using the same underlying Nuance voice recognizer as much of the rest of the industry, which is true, but Nuance is also what Apple starts with, too.
Here’s the background on CUE. Cadillac is bringing out two new sport sedans this year, the full-size XTS and the compact ATS, as well as refreshing the SRX crossover (tall wagon). All get CUE along with the OnStar telematics system and a host of optional driver aids (lane departure warning, adaptive cruise control, head-up display). CUE starts with an 8-inch LCD touchscreen in the center stack (the middle of the dash where the radio goes). The center stack is a capacitive touch panel, meaning it’s a membrane with virtual buttons that registers your touch and has haptic feedback, or the ability to vibrate or pop back to let you know your input registered. The center stack LCD has the same capacitive touch and haptic feedback. (The instrument panel LCD is look but don’t touch.)
You’ll see about 20 buttons on the center stack. The hazard warning flasher and stability control are toggled by mechanical switches; everything else is virtual and capacitive touch. Reduced button count is generally good. Five years ago Acura crammed more than 60 buttons on the Acura TL center stack, messing up an otherwise tech-savvy car, and that 60 included a control knob like BMW iDrive or Audi MMI that’s supposed to reduce knob-and-button count.
The CUE instrument panel behind the steering wheel will be a 12.3-inch high-res 1280×480 LCD display. Cadillac says it’s user-configurable. Translation: You can pick from four display options called Simple (above), Enhanced, Balanced, and Performance. Then you can modify the screens by moving info such as a music display over from the center stack to the instrument cluster. I found this similar to the MyFord Touch instrument panel that has a pair of user-configurable 4-inch LCDs flanking a traditional mechanical gauge package. Cadillac’s version is much higher tech, but as far as getting phone info, music info, or simplified navigation instructions right in front of you, the effect is the same.
Don’t get any ideas about custom designing your own screen layout. That’s something Cadillac isn’t going to let you do anytime soon. I found the Performance layout seemed more the vision of a design student than a hard-core enthusiast but if Cadillac gets mixed feedback, it’s easy (for Cadillac) to make a change. You want a 3-inch circular speedometer with 65 mph a the top of the circle and a 2-inch digital speedo inside that? Sorry, that’s Cadillac’s call, not yours.
GM says it spent four years talking to prospective owners as it went about designing CUE and, as is the fashion of automakers, assigning personas and composite photos to eight user types. So the CUE user might be a Driving Enthusiast, Gadget Girl, Show Off, Deejay, Basic Family Transporter (the artist formerly known as Soccer Mom), On-the-Go Working Mom, Communications Extremist, or Commute Time Organizer. The common threads are clear: a phone or smartphone plays into the equation and there’s music and Bluetooth involved. More advanced users want texts or email read or displayed. The Gadget Girl persona appears to be saying that if navigation costs too much (it probably will), she’ll bring a portable GPS and she wants a bin to hide it in when parked. Cadillac is one of several car companies now allowing smartphone apps to be controlled by the car, starting with Pandora and Stitcher. Cadillac says it’s an open API but what that means, as with other cars, is that it will show up on the driver’s center stack display only if Cadillac allows it.
It’s unclear how GM spent four years developing the low-button-count center stack and didn’t hear or figure out: Capacitive touch volume controls are a likely to be a disaster when the car is moving on all but a glass-smooth surface, since there’s no surface to hold your wrist against while your finger slides the volume control. This has already been proven with the capacitive control on Lincolns with MyLincoln Touch. GM will probably tell whiny customers what Lincoln does now: “Use the steering wheel volume buttons.” Customers will probably tell GM: “They’re pretty small and they’re impossible when I’m wearing gloves.”
Cadillac and Lincoln/Ford are placing their bets on touchscreens and voice input. Audi, BMW, are Mercedes-Benz are betting on cockpit control wheels (MMI, iDrive, Comand contoller) and voice input. Generally speaking, touchscreens are easier to comprehend and master than control wheels. Skilled users who bother to read the owner’s manual will find the control wheel faster over time. Repeatedly extending your right arm to tap the LCD display is a minor annoyance and displays are moving higher in the center stack in response to driver distraction concerns (the driver has to glance over, not over and down). I found the current-generation Cadillac SRX design (pre-CUE) requires most drivers to move their right shoulders forward from the backrest to reach the display. Over time, drivers may switch from hand control to voice input once they master the vocabulary. Cadillac says it has a natural language interface and also notes some commands will require a specific syntax; Siri pretty much understands what you want no matter how you say it.
The center stack screen has a simplified display most of the time; a proximity sensor adds more choices as your hand draws near. It’s a nice touch but not first-ever (Cadillac’s claim notwithstanding) since Bose did the same thing five years ago and it has been used by Ferrari in production cars.
It’s hard to judge how good CUE will be until it’s actually in a production car, not a cockpit simulator, and you can’t rate voice input quality from tests in a crowded ballroom or convention floor. CUE appears to be a big leap ahead for Cadillac, which is the only American automaker currently able to challenge the high-end Automakers from Europe and Japan (Lexus, Infiniti).
For more, check out the CUE website or watch the video below.