HMI Trends from Agritechnica 2013

At this year’s Agritechnica, I had a close look at the HMIs of the tractors and self-propelled harvesters of CLAAS, AGCO (Fendt and Massey Ferguson), John Deere, New Holland and some others. My focus was on the UI software running on driver and auxiliary terminals. I think that these HMIs have a lot of catching up to do with respect to in-vehicle-infotainment systems and even more with modern smartphones. Here is my detailed report.

New Holland

New Holland Tablet Terminal

New Holland: Standard Android Tablet Used as Driver Terminal

New Holland came up with a promising idea. They use a standard Android tablet as their driver terminal. The tablet is connected via Ethernet with the “board computer” (probably an industrial PC) hidden away in the armrest. They got rid of all the ugly CAN, video and audio cables. They could actually ditch the Ethernet cable as well – by using Wifi.

For use in the field, New Holland would have to do something about the bad reflections and would have to use a ruggedised version of the tablet. But that’s easily doable.

New Holland would gain a significant cost advantage through this approach. Such tablets are produced in much higher volumes than the usual driver terminals. The tablet neither needs special hardware like CAN or LVDS connectors nor special software like a CAN stack. As the hardware and software are mostly run-off-the-mill, the BoM cost for the tablet and the development costs should be considerably lower than with dedicated terminals.

AGCO – Fendt and Massey Ferguson

AGCO Vario Terminal

AGCO Massey Ferguson – Vario Terminal in Night Mode (top) and Day Mode (bottom)

AGCO – the mother company of Fendt and Massey Ferguson – have implemented their “one-terminal strategy” very well. All their tractors and self-propelled harvesters come equipped with the same Vario Terminal (see photo on the left): Once you are familiar with one AGCO vehicle, you are familiar with all of them.

The one-terminal strategy also means that you’ll only find one display in an AGCO vehicle. Instead of mounting two or even four displays in the cabin, they show the contents of these displays on just one display. The display of the Vario Terminal can be divided into 1, 2 or 4 screens. For example, the driver can see two video feeds, the main instruments and the area counters in one glance on one display.

I prefer one display over multiple displays for two reasons. First, it is cheaper. Second, the cabin is less cluttered with a better view to the outside. However, the UI with four split screens looks pretty crammed. It would make sense to use a bigger display, say, with 17 or even 19 inch, and to reduce the amount of information shown in each split screen.

The driver can interact with the Vario Terminal through the keypad or through touch. There is a problem with each of them. You cannot do everything by touch. For example, if you want to change the value of a parameter, you can select the input field by touch, but you must use the rotary knob for changing the value. It is cumbersome to switch back and forth between touch and rotary knob.

The keypad is hard to operate without looking at it, because the keys are pretty small and close together. Moreover, you have to bend forward to reach the keypad. The very reason of keys is to be able to navigate the UI nearly blindly. This is more easily achieved with rotary knobs as used by BMW iDrive or Audi MMI.

CLAAS

CLAAS CEBIS Terminal

CLAAS CEBIS Terminal

The CEBIS terminal by CLAAS looks and feels very dated. CEBIS terminals are solely operated through rotary knobs and buttons. There is no touch! According to their sales persons, there are no plans for touch! This is 2013, 6.5 years after the introduction of the iPhone, where people expect every screen – ATMs, ticket machines, info screens, etc. – to be touch screens and where they are confused if not.

The look of the CEBIS terminal is also poor. CLAAS should really use professional graphics designers for their art work. Fonts are often too small and hard to read. Drivers do not tolerate such a poor look and feel any more, because they know better from their smartphones and from their cars’ navigation systems. If the driver terminal looks, feels and behaves like the drivers’ smartphones, drivers will feel immediately at home and will have a good idea how to operate the terminal.

Obviously, CLAAS is lagging far behind its competition.

John Deere

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos of the new HMI of the high-end John Deere tractors. So, I’ll do my best with a textual description. The terminal comes with a multi-touch display, but the use of multi-touch gestures is very restricted. They use a swipe gesture to change between the multiple home screens of the terminal.

The driver can configure every home screen to his own needs. He can freely place the available widgets where he wants. There are widgets for speed, rpm, current customer, videos, field navigation and many other things. The screen quickly looks crammed with the many small widgets, which makes it hard for the driver to find the relevant information. Nevertheless, the idea of a freely configurable home screen is worth keeping in mind.

CCI-200 ISOBUS Terminals

Standard ISOBUS Terminal by Grimme

Standard ISOBUS Terminal by Grimme

The Grimme terminal, shown on the left, is a typical example of a standard CCI-200 ISOBUS terminal, as it is offered by many other manufacturers as well (for example, Holmer, Amazone or Dammann). Nobody wants to use such a terminal! Unfortunately, many have to.

The home screen of the Grimme terminal is overloaded with information. The designers simply put too much information on too small a screen. The problem is exacerbated by using soft keys. Each side of the terminal sports six soft keys describing the actions of the function keys, where only a few of them are used at the same time (here: 2 out of 12!). This is huge waste of screen real estate! Soft keys have become superfluous with the advent of touch screens, as the development of mobile phones has shown over the last five years. And, the CCI-200 terminals are typically touch screens.

The look of these CCI-200 terminals is pretty poor and dated. The manufacturers of these terminals should really hire some professional graphical designers. Most drivers own a modern smartphone nowadays. Hence, the expect the same user experience (look, feel and behaviour) from other devices like driver terminals, ATMs, ticket machines and info screens.

The consequence of a bad user experience is that drivers are less efficient in their job and that they make more mistakes. The terminal is the main channel of communication between the driver and the vehicle. If the driver regards the terminal as bad, he also regards the whole vehicle as bad. Car OEMs have understood that already and act accordingly when developing the car’s in-vehicle-infotainment system and instrument cluster.

ROPA

ROPA Terminal with 12.1-Inch Touch Screen

ROPA Terminal with 12.1-Inch Touch Screen

ROPA is a good counterexample to the CCI-200 terminals exemplified by Grimme, who is a direct competitor of ROPA’s. They use a big 12.1-inch, high-quality touch screen. This allows them to put a lot of information on the home screen, without the screen looking overcrowded. The graphical design and hence the look is considerably more professional and better than of the ISOBUS terminals.

Summary

What would make the HMI for a driver terminal unrivalled for the next years?

  • A user experience similar to high-end smartphones: dead easy to use, clear organisation of information, professional graphics design.
  • User input both by multi touch and by a navigation cluster similar to BMW’s iDrive . The navigation cluster must enable no-look operation for minimal distraction.
  • Bigger 15- or even 17-inch screens with higher resolutions of 1600×1200 pixels. This gives you a decent resolution of 800×600 for four split screens and saves you from mounting two or even four separate terminals. Moreover, it gives you enough space to place all the information on the screen in a non-crammed way.
  • Put a 3G or even 4G modem into the driver terminal and turn it into a Wifi hotspot. This gives you a couple of advantages. First, you can get rid off all the ugly cables (CAN, video, etc.) to the terminal and communicate wirelessly with the rest of the vehicle. This drives down the costs for the terminal. Second, the terminal provides an Internet connection to the outside world for crop area management, field navigation, remote technical support, weather forecasts and many other things.

None of the terminals I have seen at Agritechnica 2013 comes even close to this vision. A well-designed and smoothly working in-vehicle infotainment system has become a relevant buying factor for cars over the past two years and is going to be even more important in the future. I am sure that we’ll see a similar trend in agricultural vehicles.

If the terminal’s HMI enables drivers to do their jobs more efficiently and to enjoy their chores, the harvester or tractor with such an HMI will be preferred over others. I am keen on seeing where HMIs stand in 2015 at the next Agritechnica.