SAN FRANCISCO -- Buttons and knobs on the dashboard already have lost ground to touch screens and voice controls, and with the debut of gesture controls in BMW's flagship sedan later this year, yet another interface is entering the fray.
Gesture control, popularized by gadgets such as the Kinect camera for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox video game console, is too alluring for automakers to resist. Yet the design of BMW's trailblazing system shows that automakers are moving forward with caution, having learned a lesson from the problems that plagued early voice-control systems.
"Everyone in this industry remembers what happened with voice, and no one wants it to happen again," said Moritz von Grotthuss, CEO of Gestigon GmbH, a gesture-tracking startup that is working with Volkswagen and Audi.
Even today, many voice-control systems struggle to understand natural speech, so drivers must memorize clunky commands or go through question-and-answer sessions with a computer. Last summer, the consultancy J.D. Power and Associates revealed that voice recognition has become the No. 1 complaint among new-car owners, surpassing perennial nemeses such as Bluetooth and wind noise.
Gesture control comes with a similar risk.
It is uncommon in consumer electronics, so people simply don't know how to move their hands to get what they want, said Glen De Vos, vice president of advanced and product engineering at Delphi, which is supplying BMW's gesture-control module.
That's why the system in BMW's redesigned 7-series luxury sedan is limited to just a few easily understood hand gestures. To turn up the radio, the driver can spin a finger in a circle. To reject an incoming phone call, the driver can swat at the air with an open hand, as if shooing a fly.