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

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
a lesson for automakers navy abandons touchscreen controls over safety concerns

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]

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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.

  • Theflyersfan As a kid, a neighbor had one of these full-sized conversion vans with the TV and wet bar in the back. And it was so cool to go in - as a kid it was, driving it had to be terror at times with blind spots, iffy power and brakes, and the feeling that you're hauling your living room with you! Kids of the 1970s and 1980s had this experience. Afterwards with minivans and then CUV everything, not so much.And I'm crushed that a 1977 van doesn't have some kind of mural on the sides. Coyote howling at the moon, American flag, Confederate flag, bright stripes, something! You can't have a 1970's era van with plain sides! At least a "Don't Laugh. Your daughter's in here" bumper sticker on the back. I always get a Gacy or Bundy vibe with these vans...
  • Jeff S In the EV market Tesla is not a niche player it is the major player. According to the latest data of the California-based vehicle valuation and automotive research company  Kelley Blue Book, Tesla has the lion’s share with 75 percent market share in  the electric vehicle market in the first three months of 2022.Tesla has dominated the electric vehicle market for years in the United States. The electric vehicles manufactured by Tesla accounted for 79 percent of the new electric vehicles registered in the United States in 2020 and 69,95 percent in 2021. The decrease in the market share in 2021 might be explained by backlogs and the global chip shortage, but the company is ramping up its sales and has already increased its market share to 75 percent in the first quarter of the year. According to Kelley Blue Book, the top 10 EVs sold in the US in the first quarter of 2022 are;[list=1][*]Tesla Model Y[/*][*]Tesla Model 3[/*][*]Ford Mustang Mach-E[/*][*]Tesla Model X[/*][*]Hyundai Ioniq 5[/*][*]Kia EV6[/*][*]Tesla Model S[/*][*]Nissan Leaf[/*][*]Kia Niro[/*][*]Audi e-Tron[/*][/list=1]Tesla has delivered 310,048 vehicles in the first quarter of 2022, another first-quarter record. The success of Tesla is proven once again as the company has three electric cars in the top 10 most selling electric vehicles in the United States, while no other manufacturer has even two different models on the list.Tesla leads all others, selling slightly over 936,000 units in 2021. This gave the company a market share of nearly 14%.Mar 30, 2022https://interestingengineering.com/transportation/tesla-ev-market-75-percent-market-share
  • Jeff S I did not know Plymouth had a full size van prior to the mini vans. I did know about the Plymouth pickups and the Trail Duster.
  • Arthur Dailey When I grew tired of the T-Bird trying to kill me by refusing to start at the most inconvenient times/places, I replaced it with a '79 fullsized Dodge (Sportsman) van. Similar to this but with a different grille and rectangular headlights. The 4 'captains' chairs in my van were pretty much identical to the ones in this van. Mine certainly was not as nicely finished inside. And it was a handful to drive in snow/ice. One thing that strikes me about this van is that although a conversion it does not seem to have the requisite dark tint on the windows.
  • Jeff S I am not a fan of Tesla and they were niche vehicles but it seems that they have become more common. I doubt if I get an EV that it would be a Tesla. The electrical grid will have to be expanded because people over the long run are not going to accept the excuse of the grid can't handle people charging their EVs.