Thursday 17th October 2019

Screen-based interfaces might not be the way forward for connected cars

Published on November 27th, 2018

The connected car has given rise to greater digitisation of in-car user interfaces, moving away from tactile buttons to on-screen technology and touchscreens. Are the interfaces offering drivers a better experience, or making life more complex asks Chris Bush, head of experience design agency Sigma?

As our society has become increasingly connected, it seems only natural that our cars have followed suit. A particular concern is drivers’ safety. Most headlines about connected cars focus on cybersecurity risks, but a far more direct safety risk may be right in front of our noses.

While the intricate, menu-based interfaces found in many connected cars are certainly useful in a stationary vehicle when the driver can devote their full attention to their operation, they become less useful and potentially dangerous once the car is in motion. Touchscreens don’t provide physical feedback, so drivers must divert their attention from the road to operate them, which is arguably as bad as operating a phone behind the wheel.

Adding to the drivers’ burden

Physical buttons and dials enable drivers to change a radio station, or adjust climate controls easily without devoting too much of their attention to that task. When those interfaces become fully screen-based, the cognitive load on the driver is greatly increased.

To make a simple adjustment the driver now has to devote a lot of their attention to the screen to select the correct menu and interact with the relevant controls. All of this adds an unnecessary burden on the driver and as a result, the designers of these interfaces could be jeopardising drivers’ safety, and that of their passengers and other road users.

Indeed, research shows that overly complicated in-car interfaces are a dangerous distraction to drivers, taking their attention off the road for up to 40 seconds at a time in some cases. Even simple functions such as operating the radio (which previously needed virtually no attention from the driver) may encourage the driver to take their eyes off the road to locate the correct on-screen ‘button’ on the car’s infotainment system, or the driver’s own Bluetooth-connected device.

Considering the relative lack of driver uptake of alternative solutions, such as steering wheel controls, such action has a serious risk of fragmenting the driver’s attention, increasing cognitive load and compromising safety.

Implemented thoughtfully, however, in-car technology could greatly benefit drivers. For example, it has been predicted in some quarters that, as connected car technologies evolve, Augmented Reality (AR) could be used to overlay information onto windscreens and windows.

Chris Bush

This concept can be traced as far back as World War II, where fighter pilots had radar information projected onto their gunsights to enable night-time combat. This application of AR could improve driver safety by using technology thoughtfully to relay information without compromising drivers’ attention.

Sacrificing accessibility?

As the car interface evolves we should not forget the 13.9 million UK residents living with physical and cognitive impairments alone (the global total is around 285 million according to the World Health Organisation) who may be left behind as the connected car interface develops further. Digital inclusion must be a consideration. While buttons or dials are usable for most, touchscreens and menu-based interfaces are likely to be a far more difficult proposition – particularly if the potential range of drivers’ capabilities are not thought through during the design process.

The need for thoughtful design

The issues of safety and accessibility — or the lack of them — could be solved by more thoughtful design that places a greater emphasis on drivers’ needs and technologies to improve safety and usability. Forward collision s systems are a good example; they can reduce crashes by 12% and when combined with vehicle-to-vehicle communications, could reduce the number and severity of collisions.

The future of the connected car should not revolve around including as much exciting technology as possible, but rather making thoughtful use of certain technologies to improve the in-car user experience. For example, adjustments to the temperature will often be made when the vehicle is in motion and simple voice commands would be a more convenient and safer often than screen-based operation.

Technology, and the connectivity it brings, is likely to have a major impact on how we drive in future, the true solution lies in thoughtful digitisation to augment the in-car experience to revolutionise how we drive. The aim should always be to promote smarter driving and experiences that balance safety and usability.

The author of this blog is Chris Bush, head of experience design agency Sigma

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