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August 8, 2017updated 09 Aug 2017 10:45am

Do the potential of autonomous vehicles mean the end of traditional car manuals?

In The Design of Everyday Things – one of the most renowned books in design – Don Norman says that, “When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even a one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed”. Whilst this advice isn’t necessarily relevant to the automotive industry, the sentiment still stands.

By Ellie Burns

Manuals, of course, have their place, particularly for complex systems like the cars we drive today. With the cars of the future likely to be highly complex machines, it’s probable that we’ll continue reaching for the old paper car manual for the time being.

That said, reliance on these manuals is waning. A recent survey that we conducted found that 67 percent of people never or rarely use them, even when they have problems, with 23 percent saying they only look at it once after buying the car.

Do the potential of autonomous vehicles mean the end of traditional car manuals?

John West, Principal Solutions Architect, EMEA – Nuance Communications

If people aren’t using manuals, that’s not to say that the information that they hold isn’t useful. Instead, it indicates that the way that this information is being communicated is not being done so in a way that suits the driver.

Car companies should be considering how they can create and design systems that will conveniently provide drivers with useful information that comes from the manual.

One solution could be to digitise car manuals by making them searchable PDFs, or going a step further and embedding them in mobile apps. However, research shows that this would still leave 71 percent of users preferring a printed manual to a digital manual – and yes, this is coming from the same people who say they don’t use their manual today. Confused, I thought so!


So what gives? 

It seems that users want some of the affordances of a digital manual, but still don’t expect they’d use it if it was in a recognisable form. Perhaps the preference for a printed manual lies in the comfort of what is familiar, and an awareness that they aren’t vastly more likely to hop onto their laptop to find and use a PDF manual.

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But what happens if we provide them with a better experience that affords the benefits of convenience and searchability? What would happen if you took a digital car manual, embedded it into the head unit, and made it voice-searchable to users? Without giving any more information to respondents, the survey found that 65 percent of participants said this was something they’d like.

If we paint a clearer picture of what these voice-enabled, searchable so-called “smart car manuals” look like, we find that we can get beyond two-thirds of drivers stating they want this feature. If we talk about it in the context of being an integral part of a holistic, well-designed automotive assistant, 80 percent of drivers say they want this as part of such a system.


When unconstrained, though, drivers are thinking bigger

Even though we’ve seen drivers reporting value in these smart car manuals, we see them get more excited about the future of the industry. When we don’t frame the types of questions, they proactively suggest a wide range of questions. Some of these could be found in a car manual, for example “Where’s my tyre iron located?” or “what should my tyre pressure be?”.

We also see a lot more questions come up that are more relevant to either the current state of the vehicle, or the current task at hand for the driver. For example, many drivers want the ability to ask about their current fuel economy, how much longer they could go before they needed an oil change, or if they can continue to drive on their tyre with low pressure. These responses may be answered by an intelligent automotive assistant.

It’s clear that consumers want a car that is aware of its current state, aware of the state of the infotainment system and the various services it is running, and capable of helping the driver out with whatever is most important at the time. Importantly, nearly three-quarters of users said they wanted these systems to be conversational, not just controlled through single voice commands, meaning that they want these systems to be able to refine and work through a dialogue, to get to a better outcome.

All of this comes together for a vision of a much more capable, helpful automotive assistant in the future. It starts by making smart car manuals today that take the place of traditional manuals, and extends into a future where the cars can answer a much broader range of questions, not only making for a better user experience, but making for a safer journey.

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