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Car Connectivity: The Problem With Touchscreens in Cars

Consumers in this high-tech world of ours are demanding more and more when it comes to car connectivity. We have become accustomed to being connected almost everywhere we go through our smartphones. Carmakers are apparently working tirelessly to bring that smartphone experience to their products. Suddenly touchscreens nearly the size of dinner trays are popping up and extending over the top of the dashboard on several new cars.

Many of these systems operate much like our smartphones or tablets with pinching and swiping to jump to the desired screen or perform a specific function. On its face, this would seem to provide a certain familiarity and comfort level. “Hey, this works just like my iPad!”

Jackie Li is a product designer at the software development firm Connected Lab. After riding as a passenger in a Tesla Model X in which the driver was glued to the car’s 17-inch touchscreen, Li decided to task his team with determining just how distracting touchscreen-based interfaces really are. He recently published his findings in a paper for UX Collective.


Li’s team assembled a driving simulator to gauge the cognitive stress that touchscreens cause for drivers during routine driving situations. They then invited 21 people to participate in the study. As with everyday driving, participants used the touchscreens to adjust the climate, choose music, navigate and so forth as they drove.

Screen Stress

The initial revelation was that touchscreens demand more eye-hand coordination than knobs and buttons. Knobs and buttons don’t change location. Touchscreens often require the driver to look to see the next step or to view the result of the input. This probably isn’t a big surprise to anyone. What did surprise Li was that even when the drivers weren’t inputting commands, their attention was still drawn to the screen as they routinely glanced at it to see what was new.

Turning off the screen made the driver more attentive, but created its own stress. Participants complained about not having access to information — such as navigation directions — when the screen was turned off.

Talk to Me

One solution, or so Li’s team thought, was vocal commands and responses. Have a voice assistant, such as Amazon’s Alexa, respond to voice commands by taking action and delivering vocal responses. This wasn’t as successful as they thought it would be before introducing it into the study. Many of the participants simply didn’t like using it. It was never their first choice even when made aware of its availability. Moreover, using voice commands created its own cognitive stress as the participants struggled to think of what to ask for and then how exactly to ask it to produce the desired result. Participants simply found it easier and more convenient to do it by hand.

Voice, as it turns out, was only preferred in doing multi-step tasks like playing a specific song or getting directions somewhere. For turning things on or off or changing a radio station, participants preferred doing it by hand.

What It Means to You: The study concluded that when it comes to car connectivity, designers and developers can’t simply replicate what has been done on smartphones. Drivers shouldn’t devote the amount of attention to a screen while they are driving that they do when sitting or even walking. Looking at a touchscreen is every bit as distracting and unsafe as using a smartphone while driving.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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