- The Haptics Team focuses on sensory experiences
- Goal: Uniform haptics and operating acoustics from the A1 to the A8
- Haptic impressions decisively influence the purchasing decision
Pressing, tapping, pulling, sliding, turning, feeling and touching. These are the focus of an entire team at Audi. After all, quality is in the details. Jörg Müller and Manfred Mittermeier coordinate the “Team for Actuation Haptics,” which for the sake of simplicity is just called the Haptics Team. Haptics is the science of touch. But in fact it involves a lot more than merely ensuring that occupants like the way an Audi feels. It’s about operating feel and actuation sound, ease of movement and impressions.
How do you get a job like that? This is the answer of the two haptics experts: “It’s important that you take haptics seriously. Another requirement is a high degree of sensitivity. Not so much a sensitivity based on physical characteristics such as the fingertips, but more to do with a process of awareness that happens in the mind.” Johann Schneider, Head of Controls Development at Audi, has been responsible for haptics since January 2010. Jörg Müller and Manfred Mittermeier coordinate the Haptics Team, which was established in its current form back in 1995. It is therefore clear that Audi takes haptics and acoustics very seriously.
“A car’s haptics are of immense importance,” says Schneider. “The haptic impressions decisively influence the customer’s purchasing decision. The customer must immediately feel comfortable when getting into an Audi and must experience the precision and great attention to detail. To ensure this for all of our models, a new haptics process was established and overall responsibility pooled in Technical Development.”
The ultimate objective: to implement a comprehensive haptics and operating acoustics concept across all model lines, from the A1 to the A8. To this end, the haptics experts are involved at an early stage in the development of a new Audi model and evaluate all of the electric controls within the vehicle during the development process. The spectrum ranges from simple switches, the ignition, the gearshift and the steering column stalk to the complex Multi Media Interface, buttons and the central rotary pushbutton. “We measure, compare, analyze and discuss both the technical and design feasibility of new concepts with development engineers and suppliers,” says Mittermeier.
The team members meet every two weeks to discuss new projects. “Sometimes we start with pictures and sketches and make the initial haptic evaluations. A development engineer usually presents a control, and we discuss it before evaluating according to defined criteria,” he adds.
The “hard core” of the Haptics Team currently consists of 15 members from a broad mix of specialized backgrounds, such as component development, controlling, quality assurance, design and marketing. The aim is for the main occupations of the haptics specialists to be as varied as possible so that they simulate a representative cross-section of customers.
Further findings are drawn from comparative tests using external test persons, which are carried out by neutral organizations. The results of these tests are likewise used in vehicle development. The haptics experts also work with universities with the aim of gaining new scientific findings in the field of haptics. “We’ve gained new and helpful insights from this, especially in the area of sensory perception in the development of operating haptics and acoustics,” says Müller.
“You won’t be able to please every customer,” says the engineer. “The goal is to maximize customer satisfaction. If we achieve 80 percent, that means we have a very good haptics concept.” It is far from easy to achieve figures as high as that. “Haptics are difficult to express in numbers and units. Haptic evaluation is very subjective, but our task is to make it objective and more generally applicable,” explains Müller.
The haptics experts at Audi developed technical specifications several years ago. Both the Company’s own developers as well as suppliers are required to comply with these specifications. The content of these documents is amended with new scientific findings at regular intervals. Audi controls are assessed according to the following criteria: ease of motion, moderate operating paths, defined end stops, precise guides, uniform actuation sound and clear feedback at the shifting point – primarily tactile, but acoustic as well. “The customer wants to have clear feedback when initiating a function. When the driver presses a button, for instance, the way in which the effort required increases is important. Haptic response also includes acoustic feedback, such as a clearly audible click. The proper combination of haptic and acoustic feedback gives the customer the confidence that the function was indeed initiated,” explains Müller.
This primarily involves the force, process, movement, direction or sound of the controls. One particularly important question is whether the shape of the control element makes clear how the element is operated. Mittermeier describes this as “operating logic” or “blind operation”. “We want to make life easier for drivers. The less distracted they are while operating the controls, the better,” says Mittermeier. The expectations of the customer also have to be considered in new operating concepts. These result from learned processes, which are memorized models for action. This is why psychological assistance is required for haptic evaluation. An operating process is a very complex matter that must be analyzed in detail.
“Actuation haptics and operating acoustics are usually perceived subconsciously,” explains Mittermeier. “If the customer finds that every switch and lever in an Audi is in the right spot and the switches respond the way the customer intuitively expects them to, then we can be happy,” adds Müller.
It is not yet possible to determine from existing analyses whether there are different preferences between individual groups of customers. Schneider, however, is convinced that “women make more marked haptic distinctions than men.” There are also cultural differences. “In some markets, customers are certainly more tolerant of faults than here in Germany, for instance.”
Ultimately, Schneider and his team are striving for homogeneous haptics for all operating elements in an Audi model, for an integrated total concept, and for that “Audi feeling.” For the driver it should be a feeling of comfort and of being completely at ease. In an Audi with high standards for craftsmanship, everything must coordinate perfectly: the shape of the buttons, the surface properties of the gearshift knob, the wheel that adjusts the backrest, the turn signal lever, the sound like the tumblers of a safe falling into place when a dial is turned and the solid overall impression when touching the controls.
At the same time, it is not easy to define the Audi feeling in general specifications because of the need to distinguish between the individual controls. The actuating effort of controls in the headliner therefore cannot be compared with that for controls on the center console. “This has to do in part with the technology and physics of the respective control element, but also with the different expectations of the driver or passenger,” explains Mittermeier.
The cars of the future pose a challenge to the haptics development team. New interior design coupled with innovative and cutting-edge technologies call for new ideas. The engineers are still expected to guarantee high-quality haptics and acoustics. “Precise feedback to the driver is an absolute must. Perfection that you can feel and hear will continue to be the creed for future Audi generations.”