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Volvo’s CarPlay-connected interface will destroy the infotainment knob as we know it

In a world where infotainment systems become more complicated by the day, and cars are swallowed in buttons, one company dares to think different: Volvo.

Overwrought cliche? Sure, but Volvo’s new Human Machine Interface (HMI) system is genuinely important … and a very Volvo solution to the problem of creating user friendly in-car technology. Well, Volvo along with Apple. Talk about thinking different.

The new Volvo HMI system is making the rounds of auto shows in the handsome Concept Estate, showing off the design future of the automaker. Fittingly for a Swedish company, the new system is incredibly Scandinavian. The same designers who have been at work for the last twenty years to destroy the knob are now fighting to get rid of buttons.

The only buttons allowed in the sleek center console will be quick shortcuts for the media system, like volume and track skipping . The real heart of the system is a large tablet-like touch screen. And, like a modern tablet, this interface will make use of swipes and multi-touch gestures. Robin Page, head of Volvo interior design, says, “Not having to deal with buttons and controls for a growing number of functionalities is like being freed from a pair of handcuffs.” 

The result of this is not just a potentially more intuitive interface, but also a unique design. Page explained that the removing buttons “has made it possible to build a beautiful interior architecture around the portrait screen.”

That whole system works with Apple’s CarPlay, which is currently available only in new and yet-unreleased models from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo (though it is expected to expand to other manufacturers soon). It runs alongside Volvo’s interface on that touchscreen and lets drivers control music and certain phone functions with either Siri or built-in controls. Phone calls, text messages, and voice mails can all be handled through Siri, which will operate through verbal prompting.

Volvo’s HMI system demo at the 2014 NY Auto Show.

Volvo’s HMI system demo at the 2014 NY Auto Show.

Volvo’s on-screen display consists of four bars: navigation, media, phone and CarPlay. Tap CarPlay and eight colorful, familiar icons pop up for many common functions, including Apple maps for turn-by-turn directions. The system can anticipate potential destinations and routes, based on prior trips, contacts, and email information, Volvo told us. Of course, an iPhone’s music catalog can be navigated using the system, as can iTunes Radio, iHeartRadio, and Spotify.

Some folks say it could even save the car stereo industry

The potential for interesting design is on full display in the Concept Estate. The simple lines and colors create a surprisingly modern and clean look. And unlike a lot of concept cars, the effect is not something wildly futuristic, something neat to look at that you wouldn’t want to live with. The Volvo interior is in fact something I want in my car right now.

However, as with all HMI systems, the devil is in the details; it remains to be seen whether the concept will work as well in practice as in theory. We had a brief demo of the system at the New York Auto Show, and the system seemed easy to use: intuitive and best of all clean. It’s too easy on some smartphone interfaces to get lost in menus — where the heck is the home screen again? That won’t do when you’re driving, of course, and for the most part Volvo’s system won’t do it to you.

We just saw it in a sealed demo room, however. Whether it works on the road is another story. We may not have to wait long to find out, though: Volvo says that this system will come standard on the new XC90, set to debut late this summer and available early next year.

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