Infotainment Systems: As Distracting as your Smartphone?


Touchscreens and elaborate infotainment systems look great, but to operate them when you're driving a vehicle could pose as big a risk to road safety as using a smartphone while you're at the 'wheel.

In the realm of automotive design analysis, we often speak in millimetres, when describing a styling crease or character line. For decades metric markets, such as South Africa, only used inches when referencing wheel size. That’s all changed rather rapidly in recent years and an obsession with inches has potentially become a huge issue in the making for motorists.

That's because the demand from consumers for progressively larger infotainment screens has made inch-width one of the most quoted numbers in contemporary car marketing. Whereas the Smartphone industry has contained the largeness obsession by prioritising weight and slimness, most modern automobile manufacturers' interior architects keep inflating the size of touchscreen infotainment systems.

It could be argued that some of the latest dual-screen displays create a distracting field of view. This is the issue: Are infotainment screens becoming too large and complex to safely operate while you're driving... could they pose the same risk as typing a text message on your phone?

How big, is big enough?

The Mercedes-Benz A-Class features the new MBUX system with dual 10.25-inch screens.

The first infotainment screens with touch functionality were American and featured on Buick’s 1986 model year Riviera. At only 3-inches wide and 4-inches in height, it was compact, but also unpopular. Buick discontinued the feature by 1990 after customers cited it as a distraction to driving.

True to its billing (as a digitally-driven disruptor of the automotive industry), Tesla has made the largest possible screen available: a 17-inch tablet-type interface with no tactile controls other than the screen. Volvo’s has championed the use of a tablet type system too, with its Sensus interface.

Mercedes-Benz is inching up too and its new MBUX infotainment system is destined to become a digital departure point for most ‘Benz vehicles. It features dual 10.25-inch screens, it offers a gigantic swathe of active pixels to inform (and potentially distract!) drivers. The issue of distraction does not reside in any graphics lag, MBUX is powered by 8G of RAM and runs on a quite-slick Linux operating system.

Fortunately for consumers, infotainment systems with touch functionality are getting larger and displaying with clearer resolutions, even in direct sunlight – which was a bane of attempting to operate earlier systems in South African conditions. Their weakness, however, is that the user experience (UX) engineering that drives most touch-based technology, is meant for a relatively static environment, instead of the highly dynamic environment in which a vehicle operates. The distraction of sitting in public while operating some of a Smartphone's higher functions presents a very low risk in terms of personal injury or liability – which is quite different to a similar operating logic while driving a vehicle on a congested road.

The BMW iDrive system as seen on the new X5. According to research, one of the most taxing systems to operate.

With sub-menus and a surplus of functionality, most of which are impressive yet largely superfluous to users, contemporary car infotainment systems create a nearly infinite source of possible distraction to a driver while they're operating their vehicle. University of Utah researchers evaluated 40 new vehicle infotainment systems last year and found that 29 of those place a very high cognitive demand on drivers. The most demanding vehicle systems were all German: Audi’s Q7, BMW’s 4 Series and Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class. These vehicle interfaces may be feature-rich, but they require immense application by a driver, which diverts attention from their primary task, to steer and manage the vehicle’s speed.

Keyboard intuition versus touch?

Touchscreens are brilliant in their adaptability: they're capable of consolidating loads of functionality and input commands in a relatively compact allocation of screen real estate. If you were to replicate the entire depth of a touchscreen infotainment system’s myriad inputs and submenus, with traditional buttons, it would overwhelm the centre console and dashboard. A good example to illustrate this is imagining the cockpit of Concorde, with panel upon panel of gauges, switches, toggles and buttons, in comparison with a modern A380, which has a relatively uncluttered cabin.

The cockpit of the Concorde. It was clearly designed long in advance of the touchscreen revolution.

Where touchscreens fail, is that even with practice, the ergonomic intuition of a screen with submenus is massively challenging to operate without looking at it. And when you're driving a vehicle, that’s essentially what the touchscreen is expecting of you: eyes on the road and a left hand attempting to find the correct touchpoint on that screen.

Touchscreens have a relatively small margin for input error and when you are driving a vehicle on anything but the most perfectly smooth road surface, you’ll often find frustration in continuously glancing away from the road to check you've made the intended input to the infotainment screen.

The 1986 Buick Riviera, the touchscreen proved unpopular and was discontinued for the 1990 model.

An argument could be made for the merit of a hybridised configuration that recognises the importance of buttons. If you blindfolded someone in a test scenario and asked them to input data or execute a simple task on any smartphone, the traditional keyboard function of a Blackberry (the wildly popular smartphone of a decade ago) would probably be far superior for achieving success than a touchscreen phone. It’s the tactility of buttons and our ability to remember which button, or sequence of buttons, correspond to a specific thread of functions.

When the first satellite controls appeared on steering wheels they were marketed as boons to road safety, because they allowed drivers to access vehicles' onboard audio, phone, trip computer and cruise control functions without the need to take either of their hands off the wheel. These days some steering wheels have a dozen or more input buttons or toggles (of some kind) and if you don’t have a sophisticated head-up display to show menu guidance for what your thumbs are trying to do, it all becomes a bit too complicated.  

Is voice the great mediator?

Although its UX is problematic the processing power of modern infotainments systems can render a fantastically convenient service. For technologists, the argument in mitigation is voice control, which keeps your eyes on the road and both hands on the helm whilst driving.

In theory, voice would appear to be the ideal solution, but there are 2 distinct disadvantages. The first of these is vernacularity. Localised accents can prove problematic and in South Africa, with its diverse spread of pronounced English, voice command inputs can become a war of accent attrition. Even the very best digital voice recognition systems, like Apple’s Siri, could hardly be classed as flawless and often frustrate users.  

Voice commands also lack immediacy and agility. A physical button renders immediate function while voice commands require the cognition of thinking about, then relaying a plain language command, hoping the system will interpret it as intended and then following it up with another. A system with reinforcement learning, where the vehicle owner spends time in a static (parked) environment, tutoring the infotainment system on an exact selection of voice commands to be used, could render greater efficiency – but that’s quite analogue, for a digital system, isn’t it?

Tesla's touchscreen system is so large it looks like a TV screen has been plopped on the dash.

It appears unlikely that a voice recognition-based interface will become the solution for drivers, considering the dynamic environment of cars moving near each other at speed, or navigating traffic. The burden of cognition to continuously think of and construct perfectly logically sentences for input commands are unrealistic. Pilots have superior training and discipline logic compared with the overwhelming majority of car drivers and even they don’t use voice commands to throttle engines or release landing gear. And yet, they also have the redundancy benefit of being two instead of one.

Would the future perhaps be an iPod-like active dial, on the steering wheel? Apple managed to convince most of us to adopt the simplicity of iPod functionality and two such dials, in reach of your thumbs on the steering wheel’s horizontal spokes, could yield a lot of functionality. Paired with a high-contrast head-up display, this could be a solution of sorts for lessening cognitive burden and infotainment system distraction while driving.

Saab championed a night mode where only important information was displayed, focusing the driver's attention on the road.

As cabin digitation is a trending topic right now, the burden of cognition and distraction is only getting worse, flooding the contemporary vehicle cabin with an overwhelming blend of entertainment and infotainment functions. There is a sense of the inevitable that current design tendencies are merely a transition to full autonomy, preparing us for a mobility future where we’ll be entertained and engaged passengers, instead of drivers.

One can't help but pine for the night-panel cockpit function available in Saabs of yesteryear, where only the most necessary instrumentation was shown when driving in the dark, thereby focusing the mind and avoiding fatigue.

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