RST Software
Editorial Team
Ross Krawczyk
Reviewed by a tech expert

Automotive HMI design and development: how to build a digital cockpit

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Remember KITT from Knight Rider? Of course you do. I bet you’re hearing the classic theme song in your head right now. The entertainment industry has pumped out many iconic cars over the years, including various Batmobiles, DeLorean, taxis in the Fifth Element, or Bond’s super sleek Lotus Esprit. They all, however, seem too far-fetched in one way or another, while the Knight Industries Two Thousand strikes a decent balance of being advanced and futuristic but somehow not overly so, which may have been the trait which contributed the most to it attracting a cult following. The car industry has evolved tremendously since the 80s and 90s and we’re now closer to getting a KITT-like automotive HMI (human machine interface) and digital cockpit than people may expect. Strap in, we’re going for a ride.

What is automotive human machine interface (HMI)

Automotive HMI (human machine interface) is the technology that enables communication and interaction between the driver, passengers, and the vehicle's built-in systems. It encompasses the various elements and interfaces within a car that allow users to control and access its essential functions.

This interface includes not only the physical controls like buttons, knobs, and touchscreens, but also the software that facilitates an intuitive user experience, making sure the drivers can operate the vehicle safely and efficiently while minimizing distractions.

What is a digital cockpit

A digital cockpit represents a significant evolution in the design of a vehicle's interior. It replaces traditional analog gauges, buttons, and dials with digital displays, often merging several screens into a unified interface.

These cockpits offer vital driving information, such as speed and fuel levels, as well as integrate entertainment, navigation, connectivity, and even advanced assistance systems. The digital cockpit concept elevates the driving experience by offering a sleek, high-tech, and user-centric environment.

What is an infotainment system

An infotainment system is a core component of the modern digital cockpit. It combines information and entertainment to provide a multimedia-rich experience within a vehicle. These systems typically include features like touchscreen displays, audio and video playback, smartphone integration, navigation, and internet connectivity.

Infotainment systems serve as the central hub for accessing music, communication, navigation, and even smartphone apps, while ensuring minimal distraction for the driver. They are a prime example of how automotive HMI development has transformed the way we interact with our cars, making driving not only more enjoyable, but also safer and more connected.

Challenges of building a digital in-car experience

Crafting a cutting-edge digital in-car experience may be as exciting as actually partaking in it, but it comes with its share of challenges. As automotive HMI development continues to evolve, engineers and designers must navigate a complex web of hardware limitations and connectivity demands in order to shape the future of automotive interfaces.

And speaking of navigation, we’ve already discussed the issue of building a navigation app, so take a peek at this article in case that’s something that interests you.

Hardware requirements and limitations

As vehicles become more technologically advanced, they start to require increasingly sophisticated hardware components to support the digital cockpit's functions. At the same time, space constraints, power consumption considerations, and the need for reliability all affect the process of choosing the right components. Striking the balance between high-performance processors, memory, and graphical capabilities while ensuring cost-effectiveness is crucial.

Rapid cellular network connectivity and data transmission

These capabilities are integral to delivering real-time information, entertainment, and over-the-air updates. As we look ahead, understanding how 5G and 6G affect software development is paramount. The next-generation wireless technologies promise not only faster data speeds but also lower latency, opening doors to a myriad of new possibilities in vehicle HMI.

Software complexity

Integrating various software components, from infotainment to advanced driver assistance systems, demands thorough coordination. On top of that, the rise of mobility as a service development adds complexity, requiring adaptive software infrastructure for future transportation models.

Driver safety and distraction-free interactivity

Car HMI designs must aim to strike a balance between providing information and minimizing distractions. Solutions include intuitive controls, voice recognition, and integration of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), enhancing safety while preserving a high level of interactivity.


Protecting automotive human machine interfaces against all sorts of cyberattacks involves implementing encryption, intrusion detection, and regular updates to secure data transmission and personal information, particularly with the rising trend of autonomous vehicles.

Regulations compliance

Governments and regulatory bodies set safety, privacy, and reliability standards for automotive human-machine interfaces. Compliance entails rigorous testing, documentation, and adherence to guidelines, covering areas like crash-test ratings, emissions, data privacy, and cybersecurity. Staying updated with evolving regulations is an ongoing challenge for HMI development.

Key elements of the next-gen automotive HMI

The world of automotive design and technology is in constant pursuit of a novel in-cabin experience. In preparation for what's to come, let's explore the essential components affecting the way people will interact with the next generation of cars.

Digital instrument clusters (DIC)

These high-resolution displays replace traditional analog gauges, offering customizable layouts that provide drivers with real-time information, such as speed, navigation, and vehicle status. Their capability to feed various data sources into one place enhances both safety and user experience.

Cockpit domain control unit (DCU)

DCU integrates and manages data from various vehicle systems, ensuring steady communication between components. This centralization reduces complexity and enhances reliability, contributing to a more efficient and responsive in-car experience.

AR-powered heads-up display (HUD)

AR-HUD represents a significant leap forward in vehicle HMI. By overlaying crucial information onto the driver's line of sight, these displays provide a safer and more immersive driving experience. AR-HUDs offer turn-by-turn navigation, adaptive cruise control data, and real-time hazard warnings, all while keeping drivers focused on the road ahead.

Rear-seat entertainment (RSE)

RSE transforms the riding experience for passengers in particular. With dedicated screens, connectivity options, and individualized controls, these systems offer a world of entertainment and information to those in the back of the car. Whether it's streaming content, gaming, or productivity, RSE contributes to comfort and engagement for all passengers.

Voice recognition and voice guidance

These two elements are perhaps some of the most important ones in the quest for a hands-free, distraction-free in-car experience. Advanced voice recognition systems allow drivers to control various functions, from adjusting temperature inside, to making calls, with simple verbal commands. Voice guidance systems, on the other hand, provide intuitive navigation instructions, enhancing safety and convenience for those on board.

Haptic technology

This tech allows users to receive information through touch, simulating actual physical interactions. Haptic feedback enhances user engagement, alerting drivers without the need for visual or auditory distractions. From responsive touchscreens, to vibrating steering wheels, this technology revolutionizes the way we interact with digital cockpits.

In-car connected payments

Payment processing gateways built into cars will revolutionize how we handle transactions on the road. These systems will enable drivers to make secure payments for a range of services, such as fuel, parking, or even drive-through orders, directly from their vehicle. This close integration of payment solutions enhances convenience and efficiency, transforming the car into a connected commerce hub.

Driver monitoring system (DMS)

The DMS technology employs cameras and sensors to track the driver's attention and alertness. It can detect signs of drowsiness or distraction and trigger warnings or interventions when necessary. DMS plays an essential role in reducing accidents and ensuring a focused and safe driving experience.

Biometric authentication

By utilizing unique biological traits such as fingerprints or facial recognition, biometric systems grant access and personalized settings to authorized users. This tech not only boosts vehicle security but also provides a tailored and user-centric experience, adjusting preferences, and settings based on the authenticated user, offering a seamless and secure interaction with the car.

What to focus on when designing and developing a digital HMI

As automotive HMIs of the future continue to increase in technological sophistication, it's crucial to remember that the primary focus remains on enhancing the human experience. In this section, we delve into the key considerations for designing and developing a digital HMI that not only dazzles with tech but also prioritizes the safety, comfort, and convenience of the driver and other individuals on board.

Give users a sense of control

Granting drivers a strong sense of control goes beyond merely access to various functions. The idea is to create a car interface that fluidly adapts to individual preferences and outside conditions. Customizability is crucial.

A user-centric HMI empowers drivers to tailor their digital cockpit to their preferences. This may involve adjusting the layout of information on the display, configuring shortcuts, or selecting the style of voice commands.

Furthermore, a well-crafted interface anticipates user needs, presenting pertinent information precisely when needed. From adjusting side mirrors to suggesting the best route, an intuitive HMI should align with the driver's intentions, ultimately reducing distractions and cognitive load.

Follow the “safety first” approach

Driving safety is non-negotiable. This is a fundamental principle guiding the implementation of features and controls within a car HMI. One way to guarantee it involves designing interfaces that are instantly comprehensible and user-friendly, even at a mere glance.

This entails employing clear, intuitive graphics, minimizing textual elements, and providing straightforward navigation. The objective is to allow drivers to make rapid decisions without diverting their attention from the road.

The “safety first” approach also calls for a perfect integration of advanced driver assistance systems and driver monitoring systems discussed earlier. These two bolster safety by delivering real-time feedback and intervening when necessary, making sure that drivers remain alert and attentive throughout the journey.

Minimize cognitive load

To minimize the driver's mental burden, vehicle HMI designers have to craft interfaces that are intuitively structured, as well as utilizing clear and recognizable icons and controls. The simplification of the way information is presented allows drivers to rapidly interpret critical data without taxing their cognitive abilities.

A great example of how this easing can be implemented is voice recognition systems, which should be responsive and adaptable to various accents and speech patterns, thus ensuring people can stay engaged with the driving task while seamlessly using the advanced features of the digital HMI.

Reduce unnecessary distractions

The optimal in-car experience definitely involves a reduction of any distractions. Automotive HMI designers must strike a balance between offering an array of features and maintaining driver focus. This involves employing strategies like decluttered displays, limited notifications, and customizable interfaces.

To minimize distraction, interactions should be designed to be brief, enabling drivers to access information quickly and efficiently. By prioritizing essential functions and suppressing unimportant alerts, an automotive HMI ensures that the driver can make informed decisions while keeping their attention firmly on the road.

Help users with daily routine

One of the fundamental goals of modern automotive HMI is to assist users with their routines. This entails designing a car interface that integrates with users' lives, offering features like calendar integration, smart home connectivity, and location-based recommendations. By understanding users' preferences and frequent habits, automotive human-machine interfaces have the potential to enhance convenience and productivity.

These intelligent features aim to simplify daily tasks, with the in-car system becoming a trusted companion not only improving the driving experience itself, but also ensuring users can easily manage their routine tasks.

Self-evident navigation experience

You want the HMI to be intuitively structured, making it easy for users to access and utilize navigation features without a steep learning curve. This means employing clear and universally understood symbols, minimizing complex menus, and offering real-time traffic data and alternate route suggestions.

Moreover, voice-guided navigation should be closely integrated, allowing users to input destinations and receive sequential directions with natural language commands. The ultimate goal is to provide an experience that requires minimal cognitive effort and keeps drivers on the right path.

The system learning about you and your preferences

The idea of personalization within the context of automotive HMI involves employing advanced machine learning and AI algorithms to analyze user behavior, driving patterns, and interactions with the digital cockpit.

By understanding individual preferences, the HMI can proactively adapt to provide a tailored driving experience. For example, it may suggest routes to frequently visited places, recommend nearby amenities, or adjust in-cabin ambiance to match user's previous selections.

Inviting visual language

This design philosophy centers around employing clear and aesthetically pleasing visual elements that encourage interaction and convey information intuitively.

Inviting visual language includes using colors, icons, and typography that are both visually appealing and easy to understand. It ensures that displays are uncluttered, making critical information accessible at a glance. Additionally, employing animations and transitions that mimic real-world behaviors creates a more immersive and enjoyable experience.

RST Software is your trusted mobility software development partner

At RST Software, we acknowledge that the future of automotive HMI lies not just in advanced technology, but in the greatly enhanced driving experience it promises.

If your intention is to build a digital cockpit of the future, consider RST Software as your trusted mobility software development partner. Contact us today or join our product workstop, and let's rev up to redefine the human-car interactions together.

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