The Automotive Touchscreen Problem: When User Interfaces Become Distractions

October 24, 2017 by Heather Hamilton-Post

From LCDs to Siri, if a new device hits the market, there's a good chance automotive companies will try to integrate its functionality into vehicles. But new research points to touchscreens as major source of distracted driving.

From LCDs to Siri, if a new device hits the market, there's a good chance automotive companies will try to integrate its functionality into vehicles. But new research points to touchscreens as major source of distracted driving.

Emerging technologies, from voice recognition to biometric monitoring, are increasingly appearing in vehicles. Touchscreens have been in vehicles for years, but have recently been directly linked to distracted driving. According to research from the University of Utah partnered with AAA, touchscreens are increasing the number of vehicle accidents on the roads. In fact, all 30 systems tested cause at least some level of driver distraction.

The Role of Touchscreens in Vehicles

Touchscreens in vehicles now allow things like navigation, radio control, and even text messaging while drivers sit behind the wheel. While many have argued that touchscreens encourage drivers to put down their phones—and they surprisingly can offer a cheaper alternative to hard buttons—they require a driver’s attention in a way that old-fashioned buttons don’t. 

To some extent, smartphone design informs in-car touchscreen design, despite that the characteristics of a good touchscreen on a phone are not necessarily the same that apply to vehicle touchscreens (though there is some overlap).

Obviously, even the best-designed touchscreen presents some distraction. Touchscreens, by their very nature, are simply not ideal for use in vehicles, whether they’re integrated or not. As Dr. David Strayer, who led the team of researchers from the University of Utah, puts it: "The car of 2017 is a lot more difficult to use in terms of that electronic suite than it was 4 or 5 years ago."


A study participant for the University of Utah research. Image courtesy of the University of Utah.


To those designing tech for automotive applications and those who study distracted driving, this is a familiar story. Voice recognition in cars has been available for years, including syncing with Apple's Siri voice assistant. Automotive OEMs were eager to integrate voice recognition into their products and many of the cars on the road today have this functionality. Over three years ago, however, research suggested that voice-controlled infotainment systems are distracting, as well. 


Apple CarPlay. Image courtesy of Apple.


As a matter of fact, it was largely the same research team—from the University of Utah in conjunction with AAA—that came to these conclusions. Their focus on touchscreens aims to further our knowledge of how popular technologies affect road safety.

Up Against the Speed of Industry

Part of the issue of putting new tech into cars is that the lifecycles of the devices simply don't often match up. The display industry simply does not produce new technology at the same rate as vehicles.

New model vehicles are released at least every year, but most people keep the same vehicle for years. By comparison, Apple typically (though not always) waits over a year between iPhone models at which point consumers rush to get the newest version. This creates a disparity between the age of quickly-developing display technologies and cars, which are expected to have some longevity. New cars with old screens make for even more distracted driving.

Many age-related issues are solved through live-updates of vehicle infotainment systems like any phone or mobile device is subject to. But what happens when the data shows that the technologies shouldn't have been put in cars in the first place?

Strayer worries about the perceived safety. “The real concern in terms of safety,” he says, “is that the average driver is going to assume, ‘Hey, it must be safe. Why would the car company put it in the car unless it was proven to be safe. It clearly isn’t.”


Dr. Strayer (background) conducting distracted driving research in 2014. Image courtesy of the American Psychological Association.


Research assistant professor Dr. Francesco Biondi adds, "What I found surprising in these cars is the amount of technology that automakers introduce in the market. I think there's an assumption it is being fully tested and evaluated is being deemed safe. The problem with that is that's not always the case."

And, while consumers initially demanded touchscreens in their vehicles, many are now concerned about the possible dangers they present.

A Whole New Set of Problems

The live updates I mentioned before can solve usability issues. But they also introduce new worries about bugs, malware, and active hacking. Further still, drivers worry about the long-term reliability of touchscreen control systems.

Markus Schaffrin, of the eco Association of the Internet Industry, acknowledges that developments in vehicle controls have been fueled by the smartphone boom. “Of course carmakers want to get the kind of controls into cars which customers already know from their mobile devices,” he says. But this poses a specific risk.

“As long as the technical standards for these devices used in cars continue to converge and wireless connections are not security it is only a question of time before cars are subject to the first hacking attacks,” Schaffrin says.

Simply put, according to University of Utah Associate Research Professor Dr. Joel Cooper, "Really what we've seen is that, on most dimensions, what's currently in the vehicle is just too demanding." Of course, he was talking about the demands on driver attention spans. But, from maintenance to security, the demands that come with placing popular technologies into vehicles may be too high for the industry as a whole.

To learn more about Dr. Strayer's research on distracted driving, watch the video below: