A Lesson for Automakers? Navy Abandons Touchscreen Controls Over Safety Concerns

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The U.S. Navy has decided to convert the touch screens installed on its destroyer fleet back to mechanical controls after the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited them in the fatal collision between the USS John S McCain and tanker Alnic MC in 2017. They were also referenced in the collision report released after the USS Fitzgerald collided with the ACX Crystal container ship. While the reports dealt largely with crews being improperly trained on the system’s various functions, the complexity of the graphical interface was cited as a potential issue in itself.

This encouraged Naval Sea Systems Command to conduct fleet surveys in the hope it could get a handle on how officers felt about the systems. The result? Crew members said they wanted more physical controls, echoing the cries of automotive safety advocates the world over.

Despite most average consumers not having a real problem with more tech, numerous automotive studies have shown that typical motorists have grown less knowledgeable on the many features contained within modern-day vehicles. In fact, some brands have gone so far as to implement complementary training sessions for customers hoping to become better informed on how to use newer features. Research also points to current infotainment displays being more mentally demanding and thus less safe to use while driving.

According to USNI News, the Navy’s survey garnered a similar response.

“When we started getting the feedback from the fleet from the Comprehensive Review effort — it was SEA 21 (NAVSEA’s surface ship lifecycle management organization) that kind of took the lead on doing some fleet surveys and whatnot — it was really eye-opening. And it goes into the, in my mind, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category. We really made the helm control system, specifically on the [DDG] 51 class, just overly complex, with the touch screens under glass and all this kind of stuff,” Program Executive Officer for Ships Rear Admiral Bill Galinis said explained during the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium. “So as part of that, we actually stood up an organization within Team Ships to get after bridge commonality.”

In addition to confusing how safety backups function, the navy found touch screen interfaces produced significantly more fatigue among crewmen. Ultimately, sailors confessed to preferring mechanical controls by a wide margin and requested more commonality among ship designs. The Navy said it is already working on accomplishing that goal and will reinstall physical throttles and a traditional helm-control system over the next 18 to 24 months.

Meanwhile, the automotive industry is on the cusp of installing larger touch screens with more functions embedded for drivers to play around with. Unlike the Navy, automakers can utilize vehicular user interfaces to make money via commercial partnerships, automotive apps, and personal data acquisition — so there’s no incentive for them to walk it back.

Unfortunately, touch screens have also been proven to require much higher levels of hand-eye coordination to operate than traditional buttons and dials. Studies suggest that the mere presence of large screens encourage motorists to more frequently take their eyes off the road. While some of this can be mitigated by voice commands, those systems can also be cognitively taxing — especially when ineffective — and most divers still prefer a visual interface. Still, most of the studies producing the damning evidence have been relatively small in scope. It put pressure on major regulatory bodies, but most simply expressed concern without doing much more.

In the United States, the NHTSA has acknowledged distracted driving as a major issue but hasn’t done much to identify problems inherent with modern-day user interfaces. Meanwhile, the UK’s Highways England stated that it didn’t like touch screens in “a safety perspective” issued in 2018, yet failed to provide an alternate solution.

To be fair, there may not be one. At least not one that foregoes a massive overhaul to automotive UX, which could make the industry supremely annoyed after spending so much money developing them. Odds are good that manufacturers will fight any governmental intervention that attempts to streamline the driver interface. Consumers also might be hesitant to embrace legislation that potentially reduces the amount of content available in future vehicles. But, if they Navy’s survey is anything to go by, there’s likely a subset of safety minded drivers out there who would love to see automotive controls go back to basics.

The billion-dollar question, however, is whether or not sacrificing features (and likely new sources of revenue within the industry) is ultimately worth the probable improvements to safety.

[Image: Foxy Burrow/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Emineid Emineid on Aug 13, 2019

    I wish the center stack in modern cars was literally an empty rack, like a mini version of old rack stereo systems in homes. The car would come with just the essential electronics (ignition timing, fuel injector timing, etc). All the modern electronics and screen(s) would be rack-mounted modules in the center stack that could be switched out, just like old radios. That way, you could have the interface that you preferred (touch screen, knobs, or some combination thereof). It seems a shame that we have the heavy metal (chassis, engine, transmission), that can last well over a decade, married to the electronics (GPS, radio, etc) that become anachronistic in a few short years.

  • Art Vandelay Art Vandelay on Aug 13, 2019

    If you want to really get scared about touchscreen systems on naval platforms, go dig into the Operating Systems they run. Respect the classics lol.

  • Dave M. The Outback alternates between decent design and goofy design every generation. 2005 was attractive, 2010 goofy. 2015 decent. 2020 good, but the ‘23 refresh hideous.Looking forward to the Outback hybrid in ‘26…..
  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.