Why we shouldn't be burying dashboard buttons just yet

Modern infotainment can get distracting the more you drill down into the car's features. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Modern infotainment can get distracting the more you drill down into the car's features. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Two recent UK studies have confirmed what many motoring journalists have been saying all along: that modern infotainment systems can be dangerously distracting while driving.

Last week, the UK’s most and least distracting infotainment and air-con systems were revealed, with BMW’s iDrive named as the easiest to use, as part of new research by the UK’s What Car? consumer publication.

The research demonstrated that systems with physical buttons are much less distracting to use on the move than those that can only be altered using a touchscreen.

For instance, it took twice as long to adjust heating controls on some cars with touchscreen controls instead of physical dials. It took up to four times longer to zoom out of the sat-nav map to view a pre-programmed route using a touchscreen than it did using a rotary dial controller.

The easiest systems for adjusting the sat-nav map were Audi’s Virtual Cockpit Plus and BMW’s iDrive while the most fiddly was the Lexus multimedia system with its trackpad-style controller.  

The research followed a study last month by UK road-safety charity IAM RoadSmart which alarmingly found that modern in-vehicle infotainment systems are impairing reaction times behind the wheel even more than alcohol and cannabis use.

Features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were the biggest culprits in taking a driver’s attention off the road, the study reported. It found that instead of the latest touchscreen systems  improving road safety as they were designed to, exactly the opposite is true.

None of this comes as much of a surprise. Touchscreen-type controllers are increasingly supplementing or replacing physical buttons in modern cars, ostensibly to do away with cluttered dashboards but also because they look very cool and “Star Trek”.

With touchscreens requiring one to select and swipe functions much like on phones and tablets, in theory it’s a sound distraction-reducing concept given how accustomed modern Homo sapiens are to using smart devices.

But operating one while trying to drive at the same time is a different matter. Touchscreen systems ironically minimise one vital sense: that of touch. Pressing an old-fashioned button or twirling a knob provides a “click” or some direct physical feedback that doesn’t require the driver to check the screen to see if the icon was, in fact, successfully selected.

Voice control may become the least distracting way of controlling vehicle functions, but perfecting the technology still has some way to go. Picture: DENIS DROPPA
Voice control may become the least distracting way of controlling vehicle functions, but perfecting the technology still has some way to go. Picture: DENIS DROPPA

Some carmakers have introduced haptic feedback on their touchscreens to get around this problem, but this light buzz can be difficult to sense while driving, especially on rough road surfaces that cause vibrations in the car.

Apart from the loss of visceral sensation, the problem with touchscreens is that some functions are hidden deep inside a digital labyrinth and require a lot of icon-pressing and screen-swiping to find.

In a perfect world where humans observed common-sense safety guidelines like waiting for the vehicle to be stationary before fiddling with the infotainment, all would be well. But we capricious, impatient humans don’t live in such a world, which leaves automakers needing to make car functions as easy and idiot-proof as possible, especially while the car’s on the move.

The WhatCar? study also highlighted the benefits of having a range of different ways of doing a task, so the driver can choose the most convenient for each situation. A number of carmakers have cottoned on to this trend and the best systems let you use physical buttons, the touchscreen or voice control to control a range of functions.

Some even work with hand gestures in the air, as BMW allows with a finger twirl to change the audio volume or a swipe to answer phone calls.

Steering-mounted controls have been around for some time and can be usefully nondistracting as long as there aren’t too many buttons. To date nobody has improved on the user-friendly design of Renault’s audio volume controls, which are hidden behind the steering wheel at an easy finger stretch.

Many ergonomic aspects of cars have improved immeasurably from a few decades back. I own a 35-year-old classic car which has a dreadfully complicated sliding-lever ventilation system that I still haven’t mastered.

Voice control systems are coming to the fore as potentially the least distracting way of doing many tasks. A growing number of modern cars recognise natural speech so you can select functions without needing to take your eyes off the road at all.

However, not all voice-activation systems are equal, and in some test cars we’ve spent frustrating moments trying to talk-start functions to no avail — they were resistant to even the most careful inflection and neutral accents.

A complete u-turn back to old-school analogue controls isn’t practical as modern cars have ever more bells and whistles to ensure we stay comfortable, entertained and connected. Using physical buttons for everything would create an enormously cluttered dashboard.

But it isn’t time to completely bury the button just yet. Until voice control systems are perfected, there’s a middle road combining digital and old-school analogue to navigate a safer path. 

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