Thursday, August 24, 2017

I suppose I should've known it would involve Tesla

I've been meaning to revisit the ddulite thread for a while. I coined the term (derived from Luddite) to refer to those people whose love of technology (or, more precisely, what they perceive as technology) makes them prefer newer and more "sophisticated" tech even when it has inferior functionality.

Recently the always solid Jason Torchinsky of Julopnik supplied us with perhaps the perfect example.
Possibly the most controversial design decision of the Tesla Model 3, even beyond its Renault Caravelle-like grille-less face, is its instrument panel, which consists solely of a center-mounted landscape-oriented LCD screen. This tweeted video showing how the climate-control air-direction system works is one of the first real looks we’ve had at the Model 3's UI, and I really can’t say I’m impressed.

That puts me in pretty direct opposition to noted rich guy Bill Lee, the Tesla investor who posted the video of the HVAC control interface, who called it “genius.”

These controls are invoked by pressing the small fan icon at the bottom of the display, which then opens a window in the lower right corner of the screen. That window is divided into two panes, the left one having the basic climate controls—fan speed, temperature, face/feet airflow, etc—and the right pane containing the interface to adjust where the air flows.

That’s the focus of this little video, so let’s focus on that as well. The interface consists of a horizontal bar, which I guess is supposed to represent the dash’s vent bar, and an oblong ‘thumb’ that can be positioned anywhere on the panel, and can also be split in two via a little button at the lower right.

First, that thumb is needlessly low-contrast; why do a light gray control on a slightly less light gray background like that? Is there a reason not to make it more visible, maybe use the blue color that’s also in this UI design?

The whole idea of the oblong is weird. I don’t normally think of airflow as hitting a given point in space; airflow is more of a directional vector—it flows out from a source, in some direction. Picking a ‘point’ like that for where the air goes is not very natural feeling.

Then, there’s the question of how is this to operate while you drive? The nature of a touch screen, drag-to-position interface is that it is entirely visual. There’s no tactile feedback, and you need your eyes to focus on the control to drag it about with your finger.

With conventional physical vent controls, you never needed to take your eyes off the road; that interface was entirely tactile. You could actually feel the flow of air, and you used your hand to direct vanes to redirect the air. Feedback was instantaneous and immediately understandable.

The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that the Model 3's HVAC solution isn’t “genius” at all; it’s stupid. Perhaps there’s some manufacturing cost savings with the one long mono-vent; making the controls in software could be cheaper, but it also necessitates some sort of electric actuator to direct the airflow. Which is another thing, buried deeply and expensively inside that dashboard, that can break.

I want to be clear that there are things I like about Tesla’s approach here, and I’m not some traditionalist stuck in the past. I very much appreciate that they’re not falling into the usual trap of faking analog gauges, and I think an LCD screen can be designed to be a very effective instrument panel.

Physical vent controls and vanes aren’t ‘clumsy’ as Bill Lee suggests. They’re really quite elegant. They take no extra power, they give direct and immediate feedback, they don’t require taking eyes or attention off driving, they allow for greater flexibility of airflow directions, and they’re non-modal, and don’t lock out any other controls of the car.

The Tesla Model 3's solution is less effective in every possible way. That’s a weird idea of “genius,” if you ask me.


  1. This is my favorite Jason Torchinsky item:

    1. Saw that when it ran but never made the Torchinsky connection.