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Touchscreens are common but can add to distracted driving. Here's what we can do

A touchy issue.

By Eric Novak Wheels.ca

May 30, 2022 4 min. read

Article was updated a month ago

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As a modern society, we increasingly live in a world that is controlled by touchscreens. And when it comes to vehicle design, you are far more likely to see a screen than you are a manual transmission or a third pedal. But increasingly automakers are being criticized for creating high tech interiors that are now less efficient and ergonomic with an increased risk to overall safety.

The inclusion of touchscreens in vehicles goes back almost 40 years when the 1986 Buick Riviera’s Graphic Control Center used a green-and-black cathode-ray-tube display. The feature was short lived however as drivers complained about it being too distracting. Buick removed it as a feature in 1990.

Touchscreens didn’t take hold again until the early 2010s and are now perceived by many as a default part of automotive design. According to data from IHS Markit, 82 per cent of vehicles sold in 2019 came with a touchscreen. This was a more than 50 per cent increase from five years earlier.

There are two relevant reasons why touchscreens have become so intrinsic to automotive design. One is that consumers are increasingly comfortable utilizing a touchscreen to access information on things like smartphones and tablets.

As with modern smartphones, which can do far more than just make and receive phone calls, infotainment systems in vehicles are designed to be more than just a way to control the radio. GPS navigation, climate controls, Bluetooth and integration with systems like Android Auto and Apply Car Play are among the functions now controlled through a central touchscreen.

Second, from a manufacturing perspective, touchscreens make sense because they cost less to include than it would to create an interior with a multitude of purpose-specific buttons and controls.

But touchscreens are not without their drawbacks, with the risk of increased driver distraction being paramount among them. A 2017 study conducted by the University of Utah in partnership with the American Automobile Association looked at the impact to touchscreens and other in-vehicle technology has on driver attentiveness. The study results were alarming.

Of the 30 different vehicles tested from 18 different brands, not a single vehicle from the study produced a low level of demand for the driver’s attention. Seven vehicles tested produced moderate demand, while 23 generated a high or very high demand. In fact, the study found drivers distracted, with their eyes completely off the road for as long as 40 seconds at certain times.

The concentration of critical functions being housed within a centre touchscreen becomes even more problematic given the lack of any feedback they offer, forcing drivers to look at the screen to confirm activation. Industry research has shown that it’s significantly easier to locate a physical control than hunting through sub-menus, as tactile or haptic feedback allows drivers to develop muscle memory for key controls.

Despite those risks, consumers have continued to show that they prefer high-tech connectivity that is offered through touchscreens. The challenge for automakers is how to continue offering the connectivity we want but without compromising safety through unnecessary distraction.

Steering-located controls are one option as many key functions, such as radio volume and phone activation, can be placed next to your hands while they are holding the wheel. They provide tactile feedback and are easy to memorize, but even here there is increased complexity being introduced.

For example, the steering wheel of a Mercedes Benz that is equipped with its new MBUX user experience, involves a pair of touch control buttons that requires your thumb to swipe left and right while taking your eyes off the road to verify you have accessed the correct feature or menu item.

Voice activation offers another approach to minimizing visual distraction and is increasingly common in vehicles today. In some cases, it’s no longer even necessary to activate the voice prompts by pressing a button, as the vehicle listens by default like how Amazon’s Alexa operates. But challenges still exist.

There are no universal standards that relate to the use of specific commands for each function as an example, and many of these systems tend to be sluggish in their response. Smartphone technology has the edge in this regard, which has led to automakers like Volvo moving to the Android Automotive operating system in its newest vehicles, such as the XC40 Recharge.

While most driving and commuting tends to be done alone, when there are passengers present in the vehicle, the solution might be a concept known as digital democracy. New vehicle models, like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and Mercedes EQS, include touchscreens directly in front of passengers that allow them full control over many key features.

Sharing control and access can be further democratized to all occupants as well. Cobalt Share, developed by British software technology firm VNC Automotive, enables access to content across networks and devices, which makes it possible for anyone in the car to start sharing their Spotify playlist with just a few taps of their smartphone.

“Once you make it easier for people to select their own entertainment, it frees the driver-focused interfaces of the burden of being both a control surface and a point of content consumption,” said VNC Automotive CEO Tom Blackie. “At that point, we can redesign the (control systems) regain the ease of usability that’s been lost.”

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