Opinion: People Are Waking up to the Perils of Modern Automotive Features

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

One of the most infuriating things about this job is watching the media scratch its head about why roadway fatalities keep going up when the answer is as plain as the touchscreens on their dashboards. Modern vehicle interfaces are much more cumbersome than their predecessors and yet we’ve seen years' worth of coverage offering all the insight or a shrug. While there are certainly other reasons crashes have spiked (e.g. drug and alcohol abuse), the alluring tablet located next to your steering wheel has been the elephant in the room nobody was talking about — not with the seriousness that is deserved.

But things could be changing.


There are already numerous studies supporting the assertion that touchscreen-based interfaces require significantly more attention from drivers than old-fashioned buttons and knobs. While some of this can be remedied by a smartly designed operating system that minimizes menu screens, automakers are betting big drivers utilize embedded applications in a manner that would allow them to profit in a manner similar to tech companies.


You’ve probably even heard legacy manufacturers referencing themselves as mobility or software companies in recent years. That’s especially true if you’re a regular reader of this website, as your author complains whenever possible. But it seems like other groups are catching on now that brands have begun offering more apps that have nothing to do with driving, not that they plan on taking any kind of principled stance.


Automotive News recently questioned whether German automakers adding video apps like Zoom and TikTok to vehicles might represent a safety risk. Then, it followed up by explaining how the manufacturers planned on guaranteeing that they would not make the overall driving experience more dangerous. But it likewise provided them an opportunity to spill the beans about the real reasons they've been stepping up their game by adding in-cabin cameras, microphones, and proprietary apps.


"We are convinced that the in-car app usage, in contrast to simple mirroring of apps, is more intense, with higher retention and interaction rates for an overall better customer experience," Elise Pham, a spokesperson for Cariad, Volkswagen Group's software designer, told the outlet.


While it’s often easier to sync your phone to a vehicle, it doesn’t allow the company you purchased the vehicle to maximize its data harvesting capabilities. It also lets you circumvent their operating system to a large degree and any apps that might be tied to commerce, which is why automakers are now trying to sweeten the pot. The ultimate goal is to basically convert your vehicle into something that can sweep up just as much information about you as your smartphone — if not more.


"If you're using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, then you're kind of limited [for use of applications]”, Alexander Schoenhals, a Mercedes-Benz engineer working on third-party apps, explained.


Realizing that people concerned with safety are also starting to lose their patience, industry players are also trying to shore up complaints by asserting that the driver will have limited access to the most distracting apps when a vehicle is in motion. But passengers can go ham and numerous brands have begun stretching touchscreens across the entire dashboard to ensure this is what happens.


From Automotive News:


A "superscreen" in the new [Mercedes-Benz] E-Class spans the length of the dashboard and features three screens for the driver and passenger. It has 5G connectivity and a third-party app store from which users can download applications such as TikTok, Zoom and Angry Birds.
Mercedes has a number of safety features built into its integrations. Drivers will not be able to access videos or videoconferencing on their screens unless the car is parked, though audio calls will function when the car is in motion. Passengers will be able to view videos on their screens with the car in motion.
A selfie camera at the top of the dashboard in the E-Class can be used to participate in conferences. Another camera detects when a driver views the passenger screen for more than a couple of seconds when the car is going more than about 3 mph. In that case, the visibility of the passenger screen from the driver's side is reduced.
Volkswagen's driver-side video applications in the new Audi models also are only accessible when the vehicle is parked, Pham said. Models with a passenger display will play videos when the car is in motion, but the passenger screens are blocked by a "special foil that makes their content invisible to the driver," the company said.


Again, these are all things you could just download onto your phone if you felt the need to be online all the time — and without the restrictions associated with having them tied to your vehicle. The whole thing seems ridiculous and we’re not the only group with a vested interest in intelligent vehicle design that feels this way.


"I mean, why is TikTok so important that it needs to be integrated into the vehicle? I have a hard time defending a design choice to make that accessible," queried Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research. "If a passenger wants to interact with TikTok," they "can use their cell phone or smartphone to do that."


Most manufacturers being questioned about the overall safety or general usefulness of these features have offered the same response – they’re being added in anticipation of forthcoming driver-assistance packages. But we’ve seen how massively over-hyped autonomous vehicles have turned out to be. Unless you personally have inside knowledge that there’s about to be some huge breakthrough in the technology, there’s really no reason to presume legitimate self-driving vehicles are coming anytime soon.


But simply having these apps in the car may further confuse drivers about what their vehicle is capable of. The absolute legends at AAA released a study showing 1 in 10 drivers think there are vehicles on the road today that could drive themselves while the occupants take a snooze. This was largely attributed to manufacturers using names like Tesla's Autopilot and Nissan's ProPilot for systems that are not self-driving and underlines a problem with some of the novel tech that’s going into modern automobiles.


This is also why we put out an article nearly every month reminding people that self-driving cars do not yet exist. Tell your friends.


Ultimately, manufacturers just want another revenue stream to help pad their bottom lines and that would be fine if they were more forthcoming. But brands claiming they’re wholly focused on safety as they introduce clearly distracting apps under the assumption that the relevant safety technology will soon catch up are lying to you — and not all that well.


Some are being pretty upfront, however. General Motors has been unflinchingly clear that it's interested in leveraging vehicle connectivity whenever possible. It brings the concept up in nearly every investor meeting and recently announced that it would be dumping Apple CarPlay on select models. After all, why bother competing when you can just boot your rivals off your platform? It's illegal to even touch your phone while driving in most states, so GM has little to lose beyond the goodwill of some iPhone fans.


Meanwhile, the industry is banking on people feeling confident enough about the future of autonomous driving to buy into the current peripheral technologies that serve to make them oodles of money. But consumers have begun to sour on the overarching premise of self-driving technologies with overall trust in the industry declining sharply over the last couple of years, according to the latest from AAA. If this continues, all the automotive sector is going to be left with is an expensive developmental boondoggle nobody wants.


In March of this year, 68 percent of AAA survey respondents said they were actually afraid of self-driving systems while the number of people that trusted the tech dropped to just 9 percent.


“We were not expecting such a dramatic decline in trust from previous years,” said Greg Brannon, director of automotive research for AAA. “Although with the number of high-profile crashes that have occurred from over-reliance on current vehicle technologies, this isn’t entirely surprising.”


Bingo.


Acquaintances have likewise expressed their general annoyance with modern vehicles to me, often saying that they would rather have something stressing the fundamentals without all the novel tech features serving as a distraction. The industry is absolutely blowing it right now and losing consumer trust at every turn. Regulations are resulting in less-desirable powertrains or polarizing electric vehicles, prices are going up, overall reliability seems to have taken a hit, and de-contenting (unless it pertains to infotainment systems) has become ubiquitous. My guess is that tomorrow's most-dominant manufacturers will be the ones that wise up and begin delivering quality vehicles that ditched a lot of the unnecessary features we're seeing implemented today.


That doesn't mean that there won't still be opportunities to leverage vehicle connectivity in dark and sinister ways. But they'll need to do it in a manner that's not constantly angering consumers. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry will be shocked that spending an entire decade making cars into $55,000 cell phones wasn't a winning business strategy.


[Image: Mercedes-Benz]

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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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  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on May 11, 2023

    My present car, a 2018 Challenger is just an updated version of my last car, a 2010 Challenger. More power, better transmission, all in all, no really big complaints, they kept radio controls mostly knobs, along with temperature. I liked the heated seat switches better on the old car than the touchscreen. I didn't get the annoying as hell lane keeping app nor the adaptive cruise. A drive to and in Chicago made the choice easy to pass on them. All I want is window, stereo, temp, and fan knobs/switches, along with the heated seat switches over touch. Burying stuff in menus is one of the reason so many people get into fender benders trying to figure out how to set the clock, or some other buried in a menu thing. One of my annoyances is the Harmon-Kardon stereo does some really annoying things. When it's the switchover to/from daylight savings time, it does the opposite of what it should and goes back/forward 2 hours instead of one. Another thing it does is randomly lock out or turn on Sirius/XM channels. All in all, I really like the car, but I wouldn't want my next car to have more touchscreens at all than the present one does.


    The seat heaters worked MUCH better in my old car than they do in this one for some reason. The blind spot detection sometimes goes off without anything next to me on either side! My friend's Challenger and Camaros do it too. And I will never own another car without a heated wheel.

  • CAMeyer CAMeyer on Aug 08, 2023

    Never mind distracted drivers playing with the touchscreens like they play with their phones. Now many cars have delegated functions that even safe drivers use all the time. Say the air conditioning is too cold. You may have to peck at the screen to turn it down, or even go to a secondary screen. While you’re trying to get this done with one hand on the steering wheel, the car starts to drift into the other lane. Woe to Elon Musk, who found a “high tech” way to cheap out on the instruments and controls, woe to other car companies copying him, and woe to buyers who are fooled into see it as an improvement. Decades of ergonomic research down the drain.

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