At the annual conference of the Society of Automotive Engineers, no small number of technical papers cover issues surrounding driver interactions with features on the car dashboard. Touchscreens, in particular, are a hot topic. You can find SAE papers with impressive-sounding titles such as, Touch Interactive Display Systems: Human Factors Considerations, System Design and Performance Guidelines; Impact of In-Vehicle Touchscreen Size on Visual Demand and Usability, and, In-Vehicle Touchscreen Concepts Revisited: Approaches and Possibilities.
Despite all this research, the evidence is that touchscreens in vehicles are problematic. Consider an informal study conducted by Jacky Li, a product designer at Toronto-based Connected Lab. Engineers there observed 21 subjects “driving” a simulator equipped with touchscreens mimicking those in modern vehicles.
It is obvious, says Li, that touchscreens require more hand-eye coordination than traditional buttons and dials. The lack of tactile feedback from touchscreens forces drivers to look where they’re pressing. But Li says engineers were shocked to find that even when participants weren’t performing touchscreen-related tasks, their eyes were still drawn away from the road and towards the screen. “They would routinely glance over to see if there was anything new to look at,” he reports.
Thus Li’s results indicate that touchscreens seem to have the same effect on driver attention as texting-while-driving. This can’t be good. It also indicates that keeping drivers out of harm’s way when using connected car features may be a bigger problem than connecting the car.
Another design professional who is no fan of touchscreens in vehicles is Amber Case, a research fellow at M.I.T.’s Media Lab. Case has also delivered a TED talk on cyborg anthropology. “The really good touch displays were pioneered by Apple. That company spent a long time trying to get the interface right and innovating through the iPod. The problem automakers have (in perfecting touchscreens) is the five-to-ten-year product development timeline,” she says. The result: Better touchscreen designs don’t get into production until years after they’ve been conceived.
More specifically, Case sees a number of problems plaguing automakers and touchscreens. “I don’t think they’re being tested on the road or in the right sub-optimal conditions,” she says. She also suspects that aesthetics are trumping function. “There are aesthetic expectations people agree on before they actually agree on what a thing should be. The aesthetic expectations of (touchscreens) are that they look new, therefore they must be good.”
Case suspects a herd mentality among automakers when it comes to touchscreens. “When it comes to product features, marketers may say, ‘If we don’t include this we’ll look backward, and we won’t sell as many cars.’
Finally, she believes there may be a disconnect between top management at auto companies and people who know better. “If an automaker comes to a professional product design firm and says they want a touchscreen, that design firm isn’t going to tell them ‘Touchscreens are bad,’ regardless of what they really think, because then they won’t get the job. The client will go to whoever gives them the thing they want,” she says.
And what about all those SAE papers on the nuances of touchscreen use? “There’s often a disconnect when people who know better tell their managers, ‘Hey, we really want to do a six-month road test.’ The people that know the problems well are usually at the bottom of the company,” Case says. “They might not have the clout within the company to get more testing or throw out bad ideas.”