Huge In-Car Touchscreens Are A Distracting Problem We Need To Solve Now

With the UK government finally alert to the distractions posed by large touch-screen interfaces in cars, car makers should get ahead of the curve and switch back to traditional control layouts
Huge In-Car Touchscreens Are A Distracting Problem We Need To Solve Now

My parents have a clock shaped like a fish. It’s hideous but they love it. It works because, despite being shaped like a trout, the people who look at it know what it means when the hands point in their respective directions. A clock face may traditionally be round, but for someone who can tell the time on an analogue clock face, any shape will do, leaving makers free to indulge their imaginations.

The same cannot be said of the wheel. The wheel is round because that’s the only shape in which it functions. Granted, a car with wheels in other shapes could be made to look amazing, but it wouldn’t drive very well. A car built with any other shape of wheel wouldn’t fulfil its primary function of offering transport. It would be nothing more an ornament; an object born of vanity.

Mercedes' 1.4-metre display
Mercedes' 1.4-metre display

Of course, this idea is stupid. No one would be daft enough to design car technology that overlooks such obvious and primary concerns, would they? Err, actually, yes. Most car makers would, and already have done: we’re talking, of course, about the trend for the massive touchscreens – Mercedes is now up to 1.4 metres with its latest – that are increasingly replacing traditional dial-and-button-based layouts. They’re put in there for two reasons: because they’re materially cheaper to make, and because they appeal to buyers’ vanity.

Let’s paint this picture in detail. The customer steps inside the shiny showroom, huge tie knots emerging from behind every desk and an overpowering hit of Armani manfume scorching their nostrils. They’re escorted to a new model and climb in. Gasp! Such a wonderfully large and bright giganto-touchscreen. Look at all the things it can do! I can get Spotify on here, and maps, and my emails, and – oh yes, I’ll take it, thanks.

Huge In-Car Touchscreens Are A Distracting Problem We Need To Solve Now

Big screens in cars – which are, thankfully, still people’s personal space – are designed to give access to your digital personal life, which is becoming an ever-larger part of people’s perceived personalities. In layman’s terms, having access to all their apps at all times is a big deal for people. It makes them feel connected, which is a crafty way of rephrasing the real truth that it makes them feel important: involved. Noticed. Validated.

During the conversation with the unnervingly well-groomed 21-year-old salesman whose mind is already on his bonus, none of the practicalities will come to mind for our poor, ignorant customer. For example, the fact that while driving down any normal road, there’s often too much bumpiness to be able to accurately and quickly press the screen in the correct two-square-centimetre space. Or the fact that they attract fingerprints like chum attracts sharks. Or, most importantly, the fact that they completely distract the driver for extended periods.

Huge In-Car Touchscreens Are A Distracting Problem We Need To Solve Now

The UK’s TRL, formerly the Transport Research Laboratory, carried out an initial study in 2020 on the type and length of distractions caused by touchscreens. It found that choosing a track on Spotify had drivers looking away from the road for as much as 20 seconds. Anyone whose imagination isn’t filling in the terrifying blanks as to what might happen in such a long gap should surrender their driving licence before they kill someone. Speaking to Autocar recently, Neale Kinnear of TRL proposed the idea of an NCAP-style test but for distractions behind the wheel.

Car makers have a responsibility to provide technology that doesn’t create distractions; that doesn’t require lengthy gaps in watching the road. That technology is the button, and the rotary dial. A glance away from the road is all that’s needed; sometimes not even that. Choosing a music track can still be complex but it’s arguably faster by dial if you’re also driving at the same time. Faster and safer, because you can keep looking back at the road while your hand stays on the control.

Many modern cars have moved once physical climate controls into touchscreen infotainment systems
Many modern cars have moved once physical climate controls into…

We’ve no problem with the use of beautiful displays in cars, but making them touch-input is like making non-round wheels. They’re dangerous, impractical and appeal only to negative personality traits. Yes, big touchscreens are pretty and bright and colourful, and they let us check our apps if we want, but as manufacturers, consumers and human beings we need to be better than that before research needs to be done on how many deaths and accidents are actually caused by these distractions. Pretty or not, it’s time for us all to switch off to in-car touchscreens.


Myrmeko (#CTSquad)

Imagine my surprise. Not having a button for basic funcions ia actually harder to use.

01/09/2021 - 12:23 |
8 | 0
Tomislav Celić

I’ve said this a million times and I’ll say it a million more. Cars need both touchscreens and buttons. Buttons for skipping the song, changing the volume, answering a call, changing the drive mode… but they still need a touchscreen for the satnav and phone connectivity. And let’s be real, you don’t use either of the two while driving, you do this before driving off, so having them on the touchscreen is more practical.

01/09/2021 - 13:32 |
12 | 0

The thing is, touchscreens include more functions everytime, so don’t expect it to be safe, cause so many people stills uses them while driving, and that’s when it starts to be a real problem.

01/11/2021 - 19:39 |
0 | 0

Some cars even have the AC controls on the touch screen.. imagine how annoying that is. Would never want that in my car. Even using my phone as navigation mounted to the windscreen is hugely distracting at times, but at least its right in the field of view and if you press and change something on it you are still looking in the direction of the road , just reading a few words when navigating music or getting distracted by a text message coming in is enough to distract drivers, even worse if its a big touchscreen down beside the steering wheel making the driver look down away from the road. Horrible idea. Not only that, screens are way too bright to use at night, even a tiny phone screen in night mode noticeably reduces night visibility when it shines into your eyes.
Stupid new tech, almost just as stupid as allowing LED lights that are brighter than the sun and make my eyes hurt, sometimes even driving with sunglasses at night to not loose eyesight by the time im 40 seems reasonable. Whats wrong with the car industry. Stop allowing bullshit that kills or hurts other drivers, whats the point of heavier and heavier cars with more and more passive safety when they simply reduce safety for everyone on the receiving end of the maniacs who drive blindly fiddling with their phones and touchscreens and watching movies or porn or whatever whilst driving.

01/09/2021 - 22:52 |
0 | 0

Can’t get pulled over for using your phone while driving if the car IS the phone!
(joking, obviously)

01/09/2021 - 23:47 |
4 | 0
Callum Luker

Another issue with touchscreens is the placement. Many are high up on the dashboard, which has two downsides. The brightness reduces your visibility on dark roads, and the simple fact that you’re holding your hand almost at arms length to use it. Therefore you’re bouncing around, unable to hit the bit you want; which increases the distraction. If car makers designed a simple palm rest near the screen, this would reduce the distraction!

01/11/2021 - 07:42 |
0 | 0

I wonder whose ridiculous idea it was originally to introduce these touch-screen displays. Try to do something by touching the screen on the correct place, accidentally touch the wrong place because of a bump (or merely because I’m trying to look at the road), figure out what you did, figure out how to undo it, hope you did that right (or it’s back to the beginning), do the thing you originally wanted (ditto)… VERSUS land your finger on a physical button, take a glance to see if it’s the right button before you press it (often not necessary), then press it.


Also, I drive with my headlights on all the time, and when it’s sunny I can’t see the digital HVAC controls because, since my lights are on, they’re dimmed. (So is the radio, but at least it has an un-dim button). I have to turn off the headlights to change the temperature or stare at it to find out what’s displayed there, all the while in the middle of traffic.


01/14/2021 - 19:41 |
0 | 0


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