Driven to distraction
Computer-based touch-screen controls are becoming ubiquitous in cars. They are used to operate everything from audio to air conditioning. But are they more of a nuisance than they're worth?
We live in a touch-screen world. Just ask the designers of the iPhone, iPad or any Android device, and they'll tell you there is no better way of putting a near-infinite amount of information and control within a defined space than on a screen that you interact with directly. Automakers have been integrating touch-screen interfaces into dashboards for several years now, digitizing the controls for everything from navigation to climate-control systems onto large console-mounted screens with an ever-increasing architecture of menus and submenus that now rival the complexity of desktop PCs.
Take the new $58,000 Hyundai Equus, for instance. It not only has an 8-inch screen in the console for everything from navigation to climate control to camera-based parking guidance, the car also comes with its owner's manual installed as an application on an included iPad.
What's driving the need for in-car screens? "Computerization and wireless technology have greatly increased the range of entertainment options," says John D. Lee, a human-factors expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. New cars have satellite radio and Bluetooth links to cell phones, they can play MP3s and read text messages, and many of their computer-controlled systems can be customized by the user. "Screen-based systems make it possible to dramatically increase the number of functions and features available to the driver," Lee says. "Presented as individual knobs and buttons, they would likely exceed the space within arm's length of the driver."
Sounds ideal, right? Not so much.
It's no coincidence that the high-tech feature creep that has necessitated the in-car LCD screen has evolved concurrently with a new concern about the dangers of distracted driving. So far, most distraction-related accidents have resulted from drivers taking their eyes off the road to dial or answer cell phones, or from the relatively new, boneheaded phenomenon of texting while driving. The statistics are chilling: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in distracted-driving accidents in 2009. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers who use handheld devices are four times as likely to get into serious crashes.
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Part of the rationale for integrating a wide range of entertainment and telecommunications devices into a vehicle's controls is to deal with the fact that, like it or not, drivers are bringing phones and iPods and various texting devices into their cars. It would seem better for them to hunt for a song or a phone number on a custom-designed 8-inch console screen than to fumble around for those things on the tiny screen of a portable device. Yet as the complexity of a car's operating system has grown, it seems that the auto industry may be learning all the wrong design lessons from the gadgets that they are trying so hard to accommodate.
Recently, Consumer Reports slammed the MyFord Touch system, which is at the forefront of a new generation of advanced automotive computer interfaces. Ford had previously gained accolades from auto journalists and customers alike for its Sync system, a voice-recognition technology launched in 2007 that allows drivers to control many of a car's functions with voice commands. Voice recognition has long been considered a holy grail for automotive interfaces, since it theoretically allows drivers to control complex systems without taking their eyes off the road.
Sync resulted from a partnership between Ford and Microsoft (MSN Autos' parent company), and its voice recognition was good enough to call up names from the driver's cell-phone contact list, and even to find individual songs and artists by name on an iPod. The new MyFord Touch system — also known as MyLincoln Touch in the new Lincoln MKX — expands on the voice control with one 8-inch touch-screen and capacitive slide controls built into the center console, plus two 4.2-inch screens integrated into the instrument cluster and a series of steering-wheel-mounted multidirectional control pads.
Ford says the system "helps you keep your eyes on the road," but Consumer Reports' senior automotive engineer Thomas Mutchler thought otherwise, calling the system so complicated that it could become a distraction while driving. "The basic idea's OK," Mutchler says. "There's nothing wrong with having multiple ways of making an input. If you want to have four ways of adjusting the climate control, that's fine, but at least one of them should be a good one. The touch-screen and the buttons are small, and it's hard to find the one you want to push."
He then fired off a litany of ergonomic crimes: "The touch-sensitive capacitive switches are finicky and don't work well when it's cold. The steering-wheel commands are menu-driven, so you have to go through a couple of steps to do something that could have been done with the turn of a knob. The voice commands work sometimes and they don't work sometimes, and you feel kind of stupid talking to the car when there's someone else in the car with you."
It's a pretty strong indictment: The system that was supposed to be designed to help you manage complexity so that you don't get distracted ends up being so complex that it becomes the distraction. As you might expect, Ford sees things differently. A spokesman says the system provides a "smarter, safer, simpler way to connect drivers with many in-car technologies and their digital lives." He said that customer feedback on the system has been positive, but that Ford takes feedback from both customers and Consumer Reports seriously when it comes to upgrading and improving the system. Indeed, as software-based operating systems, Sync and MyFord Touch can be updated relatively easily, and some upgrades to the system have already been made.
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Less is more, what happened to just driving a car? Do we really need to worry so much about the radio, cell phone and ipod's? The more they try to make things better, it ends up causing more problems.
I'm a retired systems engineer so techie things are 2nd nature - but not in an automobile! Years ago, most controls were simple and straight forward. There were usually three knobs for the heat and A/C. The one on the left was for Off and fan speeds, the one in the middle was temp - rotate (or slide)cold to hot, and the 3rd knob on the right was where you wanted the air to blow (mode). All could easily be operated by touch. For example, the right one (mode) turned full clockwise was defroster, one click back was 50/50 defrost/floor heat, the next click back was A/C, etc. No need to ever take your eyes off the road. Same for the radio. Five or six push buttons for preselected stations, left knob was off/volume with the treble/bass ring behind it, the right knob was manual station tuner with speaker fader ring behind it.
Most cars in the 50s, 60s, and 70s standardized where the headlight light switch was (far left side of dash), high beam switch was (on the floor), windshield washer/wiper was (next to light switch, etc.). If you were driving your brother's or neighbor's car, you didn't have to look around for these basic controls. Today, they are all over the place (think cruise control). DOT used to require standardization across all manufacturers but deep lobbyist pockets changed all that.
In my current GM vehicles, with numerous digital displays, I must look down to set the digital temperature (left and right sides no less), select the air flow mode (its a displayed picture now), and to alter a myriad of other features (e.g. turn off rearview mirror dimming). Even more lame are the controls on the door panels for memory seats, power windows, door locks, seat heaters, side view mirror adjustments, and pedal adjustments. First they are small so you need to concentrate where to put your finger which means a full look away from the road. At night, even though they are dimly lit, it's even worse and even more so if you are wearing gloves. More often than not I accidently turned the heated seat on in July and near fried my a*s off. It not the cell phones folks, they just add to the problem.
OK, having some radio controls on my steering wheel is a plus but that is only for the basic stuff. If you need to make any other radio adjustments (think balance, graphic equalizer, etc.) to these super powered radios in today's cars, you have to take your eyes off the road. They should be locked out when the vehicle is NOT in Park.
Ever wonder why the emergency brake in some cars requires you push down on the emergency release brake pedal to release it while others have a release latch? Want to open the sun roof for the first time or close it quickly when it starts to rain at night? Where's the rear defrost button? Rarely is it in the same place across different models and makes. Cruise control in some vehicles is mounted on the turn signal stalk, or its own stalk, or operated through buttons on the steering wheel, along side those radio buttons I mentioned.
And finally, those NAV systems - they all require some eyes off the road but the built in ones are the worst. At least with the after market NAV systems, you can stick it where it can be viewed, along with the road, the easiest. Factory installed NAV systems, which includes a programmers delight of radio adjustment screens, require a significant look away from the road.
This is a subject that's long overdue for some type of regulation, and standardization. The auto makers have run amuck thinking techie stuff sells. I like technology but not technology for technologies sake.
I'm against all of this, it's bad enough putting up with drivers on cell phones.
If auto makers are going to continue down the path with this kind of technology, I just hope that one of them realizes that there is a big group of people out there who do not want it in their car. I would always hope that this type of technology would continue to be optional and that base models would continue to have knobs and push buttons.
Personally, its nice to be in the car alone with no phone ringing, no emails to read, no work to do etc...what happened to freedom of the road? In my opinion OnStar is really the only technology currently on the market which is beneficial to drivers. Only one button to push if you need information and accident response automatically.
Also, ever get into the car with someone who has this more advanced type of technology? They are extra distracted because they feel like they have to share all the bells and whistles with you. How do you tell your boss to keep his eyes on the road, I don't care about his car's computer?!
I totally agree with the idea that all this touch-screen technology in a car is dangerous. I much prefer buttons that I can feel without looking, enabling me to keep my eyes on the road while adjusting my AC or changing my radio station. Yes, touch-screen technology allows far more special features, but do we really need them?
For me, driving in and of itself is a pleasure and, believe it or not, a big stress reliever, largely because I enjoy the isolation it involves without a cell phone. For that very reason, I don't own one and refuse ever to do so.
Way too much in todays cars. Too many trinkets. A repair shops dream. broken electronics.....Most people staring at the flatscreen and not the road. Just drive the car. If you dont know where you are going, figure it out before you get there. And GPS...Get Plenty of Sleep