By on October 5, 2017

The Audi Q7 virtual cockpit

Automobiles are more tech-laden than ever and, according to a recent study, those interactive bells and whistles contribute heavily to distracted driving.

With connected cars ready to shoot off assembly lines and into driveways at an accelerated pace, the danger of someone flicking through their dashboard menus when they should be looking at the road is only going to grow. Many states prohibit phone usage while driving, yet there is no law against setting your radio pre-tunes or customizing your digital dashboard while hurtling down the expressway — not that there necessarily should be.

However, the American Automobile Association’s Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned researchers from the University of Utah to examine the physical and mental demand required to complete various tasks using the infotainment systems in 30 new 2017 vehicles. The conclusion was that the growing cavalcade of buttons, screens, and technology does an incredibly good job at keeping you from minding the road ahead. 

The AAA study found that programming a vehicle’s navigation was the most distracting task, taking an average of 40 seconds for drivers to complete effectively. That’s quite a bit of time to attempt multitasking, especially when navigation is just one of many potential distractions in a modern car.

“Some in-vehicle technology can create unsafe situations for drivers on the road by increasing the time they spend with their eyes and attention off the road and hands off the wheel,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “When an in-vehicle technology is not properly designed, simple tasks for drivers can become complicated and require more effort from drivers to complete.”

While design is an issue, an intelligent person would likely pull over before they began a deep dive into automotive menus and circumvent this entire problem. But we all know those people who still text and drive or endlessly futz with controls, and no amount of shaming will stop them. They’re a liability and the best OEMs can do is attempt to integrate mobile devices into in-car systems and make them as easy to use as possible.

Unfortunately, not all technologies are created equal. Taking 30 vehicles from all walks of life, the AAA study uncovered that none of their infotainment systems were satisfactorily intuitive and faulted 12 with being highly demanding of a person’s attention.

2018 Honda Civic

According to the association, the best solution is to prohibit drivers from using in-car technologies while in motion — making exceptions for “legitimate emergencies or urgent, driving related purposes.” It also encourages automakers to follow the NHTSA’s voluntary guideline of locking out certain features that generate high demand while driving.

That would assuredly make things safer, but OEMs are providing vehicles with the technologies they think people want. No company in its right mind would strip a vehicle of features when the rest of the competition isn’t doing the same.

That leaves manufactures with the burden of trying to figure out how to make their systems the more intuitive and less taxing. But that’s not going to be easy in the midst of an industry-wide technological arms race. People buy cars based on features, whether or not they even understand or use them.

A new public opinion survey, also from AAA, acknowledges this truth. Over 70 percent of respondents said they definitely want those new technologies in their vehicle, but only 24 percent felt that the systems already in place worked effectively.

“Drivers want technology that is safe and easy to use, but many of the features added to infotainment systems today have resulted in overly complex and sometimes frustrating user experiences for drivers,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO.

However, let’s be pragmatic here. Automakers have already come up with solutions that don’t involve holding a small device inches from your face to navigate roadways or make a phone call. At worst, the additional problem associated with vehicles possessing more buttons and menus were created in the wake of resolving another.

Our low-tech solution is to just pull over if you need to do something more involved than changing the radio station. In the meantime, manufactures will get better at making more intuitive infotainment solutions and you can shop around until you find one that is minimally taxing to interact with — or the government can just ban them, if you prefer.

[Images: Audi; Honda]

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32 Comments on “AAA Study Finds Infotainment Systems Dangerously Distracting...”

  • avatar

    “AAA Study Finds Infotainment Systems Dangerously Distracting…” well duh.

    • 0 avatar

      Somebody please grant me several hundreds of thousands of dollars (if not millions) to conduct a study that results in a common sense answer like this. Please. Seriously. I’ll publish a nifty Powerpoint slide presentation and all.

      I guess having all of this tech will further the push to provide autonomous vehicles. The argument will go something along the lines that we all “need” autonomous vehicles in order to not be distracted from all of the cool things we can do in our car by such distracting behavior as actually driving the car…

  • avatar

    “no amount of shaming will stop them”

    They obviously have never met my wife.

  • avatar

    The only place for a touchscreen in your car is inside your pocket. But ‘driving aids’ like auto braking and the like will have to pick up the slack because as AAA noted, infotainment sells cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, its very easy to follow navigation directions on the screen in your pocket.

      No matter what they do or build, people will find a way to abuse it, to use it improperly in order to make something that is safe, unsafe.

      There is nothing wrong with programming your navigation before leaving the driveway/parking lot. There is also nothing wrong with allowing your passenger to amend the route or make changes.

      Just because it’s possible to do something a wrong way does not mean its a good idea to prevent everyone from doing it at all. If that were the case, all cars should be limited to the speed limit on a given road (GPS can tell the PCM where you are and what the posted speed limit is), active cell signal jammers when not in park (because your co-worker in the back seat does not need to know his 4 year old is sick or his wife is on the way to the hospital), no radio, no navigation, no features but what you’d find in a 1980 car. Guess what? People will still find a way to be distracted and drive like idiots.

      • 0 avatar

        Gosh if only there was a way to figure out where you were going before you set off. Imagine the possibilities! You could know your route ahead of time and as a result, get to your destination safely.

        What a concept!!

        • 0 avatar

          I know what you’re trying to say here, but your 2007 Rand McNally can’t tell you about the two hour delay caused by an overturned truckload of bees at the SR-896 interchange and that you should get off of I-95 before you hit the Delaware border…

  • avatar

    They’re a lot less distracting than all the safety nannies going beep beep beep and lighting up the dash all the time .

  • avatar

    “In the meantime, manufactures will get better at making more intuitive infotainment solutions and you can shop around until you find one that is minimally taxing to interact with …”

    I’m not so sure they will. Lexus has gone backwards with their screwy mouse/joystick contraption, and Volvo thinks eliminating hard controls for even the most frequently used features is progress. (Actually, I suspect they know it’s not, but real buttons are more expensive than the virtual type, so they have to sell it as such.) And then there’s Tesla, who in a display of pure idiocy, buried virtually everything in their infotainment system. You need to use the touchscreen to turn on the wipers for crying out loud. That, my friends, is just plain stupid.

  • avatar

    In using the touch screen in my car I am doing what we in Ontario call “distracted driving”. There is no difference between having both eyes off the road and one hand off the wheel operating my infoscreen than there is texting. None at all. The things are dangerous to use while moving.

  • avatar

    … and this is why I drive an old car. Retrofitted with Bluetooth/ MP3 courtesy of an aftermarket stereo giving me the crucial handsfree capability for my mobile which I otherwise use as a clock in the car. And the stereo is all physical buttons etc, I avoided a touchscreen for even that. They do not belong in cars

  • avatar

    This is why VAG’s Virtual Cockpit, albeit pretty, is distracting and ill-conceived. The driver’s info area is no place to be staring at while driving. Averted gaze is averted gaze. Might as well be looking at your phone. Even a HUD can be distracting, but far less so.

  • avatar

    Groveling about cell phones and distractions in the car won’t have much of an effect. Neither will fines. Alaska had a $10,000 texting n’ driving fine, but guess how well that worked? So well that the cops managed to persuade the legislature to overturn it.

    In fact, the insurance industry found that texting n’ driving bans could be causing a slight increase in the number of crashes because people end up holding their phones in their lap, so the cop in his cruiser can’t see.

    The only solutions to distracted driving are:

    1) Better user interface design for infotainment systems. I should be able to, say, adjust the volume of the radio without even taking my eyes off the road. I’m looking at you, Honda, with the no-volume-knob infotainment systems.

    2) More importantly, advanced driver assist features. Cars that can brake or at least warn you in case of an imminent collision.

  • avatar

    There shouldn’t be “infotainment” options at all, but nothing will stop distracted driving. Even talking is distracting, especially for a “people person” behind the wheel, who has to look at the person being talked to. I see those people driving other cars and steer as far away as I can.

  • avatar

    Siri, OK Google and their ilk, _should_ be getting better at helping with many of those tasks. Ditto for heads up displays.

  • avatar

    For a decade I’ve refused to consider a car with any kind of color touchscreen, for all the reasons above. Oh, how I miss SAAB and their “Black Panel” button, which killed all the dash lights but a dim speedo for better vision when night driving!

    But my new Ford’s SYNC system has something like that. The “Disp” button tuns the central screen to beautiful, glossy black. When I need to check traffic or some other function, I turn it on, but it’s usually left off. Beautiful simplicity! The screen is better ergonomically than most, with an effective sunshade and a big shelf below to brace my hand when making changes. Common controls like volume, HVAC and wipers still have their own buttons and dials, so I have the best of both worlds. So I think good design can really help here… but the dash-wide displays like Tesla is showing seem like the worst direction to go.

  • avatar

    “In the meantime, manufactures will get better”

    The word is ‘manufacturers’.

    Yes, there is a word ‘manufactures’–for example, “He manufactures widgets.”

    A manufacturer manufactures things.

    So let’s hope would-be journalists will get better.

  • avatar

    “Intelligent people will just pull over” – and that creates its own problems. I see it more often now and applaud those trying to be safer but half the time they are still half on the road or they pull a maneuver to get out of traffic (which is dangerous). No matter what we say or do, there is one constant nowadays for 99.9% of the drivers out there- if you drive, you text/use a mobile device/use a factory installed option that is the same as a mobile handheld device. Period. It should become part of every state’s driver’s ed.

    This is so much worse than drunk driving ever could be.. drunk drivers are harmless for most of the day until they try to drive home. These idiots texting/facebooking etc are a problem all day every day and the auto manufacturers are just making it worse (for the sake of tech?)..

  • avatar

    This seems to be a problem inherent in the mindset of computer programmers.

    It often seems like a programmer will lose face in the eyes of his fellow programmers if he designs software that’s intuitive, simple and easy to use for normal people.

    • 0 avatar

      it isn’t that. it’s that you can’t rely on the people writing the software to design the interface, because they already know how it’s supposed to work.

      • 0 avatar

        “… you can’t rely on the people writing the software to design the interface, because they already know how it’s supposed to work”

        Precisely, and what is ‘intuitive’ to an engineer often is just the opposite to a layperson (or even to another engineer).

  • avatar

    Are stripped down cars without touch screens still possible to buy?

    I have a 2012 Countryman with nothing but Blue Tooth, an MP3 player, and a CD player. (Or satellite radio if you subscribe). I’m happy enough with that. I’ll use my phone GPS if I need directions.

    • 0 avatar

      Both my 2013 Hyundai Elantra and 2015 Hyundai Santa Fe have non-touch screen audio. However it appears that most if not all post 2016 hyundai models come standard with touch screen audio / infotainment.

  • avatar

    “Infotainment” is not a real word.

    I’m fine with an AM/FM radio and tape deck. The rest is unnecessary garbage targeted towards today’s idiot, ADD-riddled young people who are addicted to video games and cell phones.

  • avatar

    I operate my MyFord Touch system with voice commands. Sometimes (adjusting the volume, temp, station, track, speed, etc), I use the up/down buttons on the steering wheel. My hands are on the wheel and my eyes are on the road more with my infotainment system than it was in my previous car. If something complex needs to be done, the wife does it from the passenger seat.

    Just like anything, it works well if you use it correctly.

  • avatar

    I have the Mazda Connect system and find it to be the best executed system I’ve used, an admittedly small sample (2015 Ford F-150, 2017 Chrysler 300, 2016 Mazda3 & 2017 Mazda6). The F-150 had confusing menus, and the Chrysler 300’s system would randomly crash, freeze or buzz loudly.

    In the Mazda I can hit the button for radio and use the big tracking wheel (or favorites menu) to find a station, or using Pandora I can tell it to pick a station. Usually I just stick Pandora on shuffle and move on. Like the showtime rotisserie I set it and forget it. With the real biuttpns for climate control it’s much more stable. Admittedly the system could be a little faster, but it’s much more stable than UConnect.

  • avatar

    Wanna have some real fun. Try getting a rental car now a days. Even better get into one after say 6 or 7 hour flight at night. Forget trying to find an owners manual in any of these things. Thank god for KIA forte base models. Get this, they still have real honest to goodness knobs to do things like turn the heat or tune a radio. What a concept Fords are the worst.

  • avatar

    The good news for manufacturers is that cars now come with black boxes. They will know the conditions of your crash while you were distracted with all their great technology.

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