Are Infotainment Screens Too Distracting?
Recently, Fiat Chrysler unveiled the new 2019 RAM 1500. It came with some impressive technology like harman/kardon audio, 360-degree cameras, and Apple CarPlay. But the show-stopper was an enormous, 12” infotainment screen in the center stack. For some drivers, that’s an exciting feature. For others, it’s an unnecessary distraction and augur of the automotive apocalypse. Should we have touchscreens in cars at all?
Too Much Screen Time?
The 12” touchscreen in the 2019 RAM 1500 is barely smaller than an iPad Pro. Further, the top of the screen doesn’t even quite reach the base of the windshield. That means the majority of the screen is down below the driver’s chest. If you can’t see where I’m going with this, then you should get your eyes back on the damn road. I should mention that the RAM isn’t an outlier.
Manufacturers have been continuously making their touchscreens larger and larger. BMW, Jaguar, and even Chevrolet all offer touch screens greater than 10 inches. But none compare to Tesla. The electric automaker’s Model S features a 17” touchscreen which assumes control of all functions, not just those inessential to driving. If you want to switch your Model S into reverse, you must use the touchscreen just as you must for media and air condition control. Instinctively, that seems more difficult than pulling on a shift lever. But let’s see if that’s backed up by the data.
In a recent study entitled,“Visual and Cognitive Demands of Using In-Vehicle Information Systems,” AAA took a look at 30 different infotainment screens in popular vehicles. While previous studies have demonstrated that tablets demands much more attention than traditional buttons and knobs, AAA looked exclusively at touch screens. It compared different tasks like text messaging and navigation, to determine which diverted the most attention away from the road, and if any touch screens were easy to use while driving.
As you’d probably expect, text messaging was proven far more demanding than tuning the radio. What you might not expect is that using navigation functions on an infotainment screen was the most demanding task overall. Of course, looking at a map is dangerous, too, but major innovations should make us safer instead of making it easier to practice unsafe behaviours.
At the end of the study, none of the 30 infotainment systems tested by AAA (not one!) placed a low attention demand on drivers. Every single one was more distracting than a traditional car’s controls. And, in a time when distractedness has displaced drunkenness as the greatest cause of traffic collisions, that’s a frightening finding.
While touch screens are probably making the roads less safe, manufacturers are also implementing tech that does the opposite. Head-Up Displays, for example, project light from the dashboard to the windshield to display information like speed and fuel level. Driver’s can check critical diagnostics without taking their eyes off the road. Most manufacturers already offer some sort of HUD as option.
Mercedes, meanwhile, is rendering standard LED headlights obsolete. Basically, the brand has replaced traditional lights with adaptive Digital Light. They’re capable of illuminating part of your field of view while dimming approaching vehicles, so other drivers aren’t blinded. More impressively, Digital Light can project images on the ground like a symbol that lets pedestrians know you’re braking or an arrow that shows you where to turn in accordance with your navigation system.
At some point in the future, all vehicles will be autonomous. At that point, touchscreens will make sense as a primary interface. When your car drives itself, you’ll be free to play Candy Crush, check vehicle diagnostics, or plan your route. But, for now, screens can be a major distraction in our vehicles. So, if you’re shopping for a new vehicle, make sure you can infotainment system without diverting attention away from the road. And if you already have a car that leans heavily on its touch screen, exercise prudence while on the road.