In Daniel McGehee’s informed opinion, it is simply too late to put the spirit back in the bottle. People drive an average of 29 miles a day in the United States. They have phones. They want to use their phones while driving. The question is, how can they make it safe, free from the distraction of the distraction-filled devices in their pockets?
For more than a decade, the answer from automakers has been to fill their cars with vast and sometimes complex infotainment systems displayed on huge touchscreens that stretch across dashboards – in the case of a Mercedes-Benz model, more than 4.5 feet a cross. While “it’s not necessarily optimal to use while driving,” says McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, it probably beats the alternative of people chopping into small widgets on a cell phone screen while driving.
Because these manufacturers have historically struggled to build functional software, technology giants like Apple and Google have offered their own in-car integrations, CarPlay and Android Auto. So McGehee thinks the principle probably also applies to Apple’s recently announced next-generation CarPlay, an infotainment escalation that will infiltrate the entire dashboard. There will be widgets. There will be a choice of instrument cluster arrangements. Instead of just mirroring an iPhone, CarPlay will let drivers switch radio stations and also display vehicle data such as fuel level and speed. The company says it will begin announcing partnerships with automakers by the end of next year.
The expansion of in-car infotainment has triggered understandable setbacks. For years, safety advocates and researchers have warned that the systems designed by both car manufacturers and technology companies do not keep motorists focused on the road. “The state of infotainment systems is that there are way too many things at the driver’s fingertips,” says David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah who studies how the brain multitask. “They create a garden of distraction for the driver.”
But it is also difficult to determine how much technology such as phones and infotainment systems in the car contribute to unsafe driving. More than 3,000 people died in distraction-related accidents by 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which accounts for 8.1 percent of fatalities in vehicles that year. Young drivers are more likely to be injured or killed in distraction-related crashes. But data on the causes of accidents is generally “pretty rough,” says William Horrey, technical director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
On-site reports specifying distraction tend to focus on cell phones rather than in-car systems. And because so many car manufacturers have different infotainment systems, with variations in menus and font size and button placement, even studies linking participants’ cars with sensors and cameras have trouble collecting enough data to come to any solid conclusions about how often screen-related distraction leading to injury or death.
Still, researchers largely agree on some of the worst design offenses: requiring drivers to scroll or navigate through long menus. Not making the font on the screen big enough so drivers have to spend more time straining to see. Designer for small buttons, especially those that are not close to the wheel. (The longer a button is, the larger the target should be.) Allows vehicles to update dashboards on their own, leaving drivers lost on their next trip.