Essays & Articles


A Car Is for Entertainment

Originally published in InteriorMotives

The annual Consumer Electronics Show, CES, is always a wonder to behold. Held in Las Vegas, it attracts over 100,000 attendees and seems to occupy every hotel and exhibit space in the city. Taxi lines stretch for hours: hotel rooms are sold out months before the event.

As I strolled the main conference center at the 2006 CES, I was struck by the huge impact of the automobile. It took the entire day to review exhibits devoted to automobiles, and I only managed this because I was walking quickly. The weird thing is that this is not an automobile conference: but guess what, the new center of Consumer Electronics is the automobile.

I saw car after car equipped with mammoth sound systems, overloaded with television display screens. Screens in the visors, screens on the dashboard, screens on the seatbacks. It seemed as if there were multiple screens for each person in the car, each displaying its own content, each seat with its own surround sound channel. Nissan has even introduced a concept car, the Urge, that acts as a controller for a video game. Fold down the screen on the rear view mirror, flip the car into game mode, and the steering wheel, shifter, brake, clutch, and accelerator control the game, powered by Microsoft’s Xbox. Although such concept ideas are not really to be taken seriously, they do reflect the spirit of the times: the car has become the entertainment center for the family.

Let’s face it, the car isn’t just for driving anymore, it’s for almost anything you can imagine (and probably some things you’d rather not). As if the interior design team’s job weren’t difficult enough, not only must they make a safe, comfortable interior, but it must be alluring, inviting, and suitable for a wide variety of activities, many of which are in conflict with one another, let alone with safety and comfort.

The auto is becoming the place for group solipsism. Each individual is buried in his or her own personal sphere. The driver, one hopes, is concentrating upon the road. But the passengers have their own little entertainment havens, whether it be the built-in DVD players or something they have brought in with them: music player, television, game machine, or their own DVD player. Yes, this keeps the children occupied and quiet during long trips, but it also destroys the notion of a group, or family. After all, what can be more bonding than fond memories of family trips together: “Remember how we used to fight with each other so much that Dad would stop the car and tell us that if we didn’t behave, he would make us get out and walk? Remember the license plate games? The singing?” Ah, those warm memories will no longer be possible.

Autos are not just for transportation anymore. They are for living, so it is time they supported the life styles that passengers require. Space, cost, and safety: these will always be severe design constraints. Space is limited: buyers are cost-conscious (except for extra-cost options). Safety is harder. I once heard an automobile ergonomicist call the cellphone holder a disaster waiting to happen: in case of accident, the phone would become an unguided missile, bouncing all around the interior, a menace to the occupants. So too with all those other devices. And then there is the problem of attention: drivers are already distracted enough without adding to the temptations.

Still: it is a fact of life that these enhancements will increase. We need to learn to deal with them. The car is rapidly becoming an entertainment center.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including “Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things.” He lives in northern California at Write him at [email protected].