For those of you who aren’t automotive enthusiasts, this week is the Detroit Auto Show. As you’d expect from a car show held in the Motor City, it’s one of the main stages to launch splashy new products, and Chevrolet has decided to unveil the newest Corvette there, the seventh-generation C7 (aka Stingray). The new one, it’s–well, it’s a modern sports car, all flaps and vents and carbon fiber:In my opinion it’s a big step forward in design, specifically, in interior design. Here, check it out: The Corvette’s an iconic American sports car–perhaps the iconic American sports car–and its exterior has always been a carefully considered exercise in balancing sex appeal and performance requirements. I’m partial to the early 70s variants, with their enormous wheel arches and swoopy hoods:
But the interior has traditionally been something of an also-ran, with a functional but not particularly inspiring look to it. This is too bad, because the vast majority of time you’re actually experiencing your car, you’re in it. And, all too often, stuck in slow-moving traffic, where your attention may wander to the cheap plastic interior of your $60,000 sports car.
The C7 interior is a big step forward into contemporary design, choosing to use a blend of digital technology and analog. The outer layer, I mean–underneath, it’s all digital, with electric steering-by-wire and buttons that send signals to a master controller. But the skin uses a clever mix of touchscreens and physical controls to, in the words of one of the designers, “allow no-look control operation”.
My old car, a Dodge Charger, had a similarly good mix of physical and virtual controls, redundantly allowing access to common features–for example, a knob to control radio volume, coupled with a slider on the touchscreen, and even buttons on the back of the steering wheel that do the same thing.
In this case, redundancy is a good thing, because the interface may have to support multiple contexts of use: a knob for quick changes when you can afford to take your hands off the wheel, a slider for folks who think visually (also easier for the passenger to reach), and steering wheel buttons for times when you simply don’t want to take your hands off the wheel even for a 1.5 second excursion.
In the C7, we see a similar design choice for the center control panel–they’ve put the climate controls front and center, with some of the audio controls available too:The layout of the controls might need to be cleaned up a bit–I’m not sure I can remember that lower-right means “face and feet” for the vent controls, and is ‘sync a new phone’ really as common a control as ‘rear defrost’? But it’s a step back in the right direction, away from the pure-virtual controls found in cars like the Tesla Model S.
In that picture the knobs look odd–they have a blacked-out interior. This is because Chevrolet is continuing the automotive trend of putting displays right on their controls. The knobs show temperature when the car is on–clever. But here they’re dark, and look quite odd; in a perfect world, they would show something else when idle, just to keep the look cohesive. This is a classic case of needing to design for the empty state.
Squinting at the overview above you can see something else–controls on the passenger-side air vent.Now, controls on air vents are nothing new–the passenger usually can control the direction of the air baffles, and turn the vent on and off. But this vent has a full suite of widgets–buttons and a digital display for the air temperature (one presumes this only controls the passenger side). The display has the same problem as the one above–it looks odd when it’s dark–but when lit it gives immediate feedback that the temperature controls are working.
Also, there are buttons for the passenger seat heating and cooling mechanisms. The position of the seat heating controls is genius. They’re easily accessible to the passenger, and the position means that the passenger doesn’t have to be hunting through the crowded center stack to find ‘their’ controls. The seat-control buttons are repeated in the center console–again, good redundancy. One use case for this is to allow the driver to pre-heat or pre-cool the passenger’s seat, a courtesy I often extended before a passenger got into the car.
I also like the door handle. It’s got a big button right where your thumb can go if you grab it:I presume this unlatches the door. It’s an integrated solution to a common problem. On many (most?) cars, the door latch is a flimsy hinged plastic doohickey; passengers always yank on it, sometimes ripping it right off, and its motion is counter to the motion of the door–you pull on it, and then you have to push the door open. This button solution requires more hardware–there now has to be a solenoid somewhere that gets triggered when you push the button–but it falls nicely to hand, but isn’t in the way if you need to suddenyl grab the handle for grip purposes. And there’s no way for the passenger to accidentally rip it off or break it.
In summary, a few nuances here and there that really improve the design. Well done, Chevrolet.
 These images taken from Hot Rod Magazine’s excellent coverage of the new Corvette.
 While the Tesla’s screen is amazing and allows for on the fly upgrades, it’s really hard to beat knobs and buttons for usability. Knobs afford grasping, give instant tactile feedback as to position and changes in position (especially ‘clicky’ knobs), and are always where you left them, unlike on-screen controls. Buttons, likewise, give positive tactile feedback, and can be downright fun to push depending on how the spring rate and click feel have been tuned.
 aka the “oh s*** handle”–what the passenger grabs onto when the driver suddenly decides to demonstrate the performance capabilties of their $60,000 sports car. Can also be used in more sedate circumstances to close the car door.