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Friday, April 12, 2024

Apple Embraces the Ever-Expanding Dashboard Touchscreen

In Daniel McGehee’s informed opinion, it’s simply too late to put the genie back in the bottle. People drive an average of 29 miles a day in the US. They have phones. They’re going to want to use their phones while they’re driving. The question is, how can they do it safely, free from the distraction of the distraction-stuffed devices in their pockets?

For more than a decade, the answer from automakers has been to stuff their cars with sprawling and sometimes complex infotainment systems featured on mammoth touchscreens that stretch across dashboards—in the case of one Mercedes-Benz model, more than 4.5 feet across. While using those while driving is “not necessarily optimal,” says McGehee, director of the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa, it likely beats the alternative of people pecking at tiny widgets on a cell phone screen while driving.

Because these manufacturers have historically struggled to build functional software, tech giants like Apple and Google have offered their own in-car integrations, CarPlay and Android Auto. So McGehee believes the principle likely applies, too, to Apple’s recently announced next generation of CarPlay, an infotainment escalation that will infiltrate the entire dashboard. There will be widgets. There will be choices of instrument cluster arrangements. Rather than simply mirroring an iPhone, CarPlay will let drivers change radio stations and also showcase vehicle data like fuel level and speed. The company says it will begin to announce partnerships with automakers late next year.

The embiggening of in-car infotainment has sparked understandable backlash. For years, safety advocates and researchers have warned that the systems designed by both automakers and tech companies fail to keep drivers focused on the road. “The state of infotainment systems is that there is far too much stuff at the fingertips of the driver,” says David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist  at the University of Utah who studies how the brain multitasks. “They create a garden of distraction for the driver.”

But it’s also hard to pin down how much technology like phones and in-car infotainment systems contribute to unsafe driving. More than 3,000 people died in distraction-related crashes in 2020, according to the US Department of Transportation, accounting for 8.1 percent of vehicle fatalities that year. Young drivers are more likely to be hurt or killed in distraction-related crashes. But data on the causes of crashes generally is “pretty coarse,” says William Horrey, the technical director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

On-scene reports that do pinpoint distraction tend to focus on cell phones rather than in-car systems. And because so many automakers have different infotainment systems, with variations in menus and font size and button placement, even studies that hook up participants’ cars with sensors and cameras have trouble collecting enough data to come to any solid conclusions about how often screen-related distraction leads to injuries or deaths.

Still, researchers broadly agree on some of the worst design offenses: Requiring drivers to scroll or navigate through long menus. Not making the in-screen font big enough, so drivers have to spend more time straining to see. Designing too-small buttons, especially those that aren't close to the wheel. (The further a button is, the larger the target should be.) Allowing vehicles to update dashboards on their own, leaving drivers lost on their next ride.

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There are best practices too, compliments of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA recommends no in-car visual or manual task should take longer than two seconds, because a glance away from the roadway longer than that in a six-second period substantially increases the likelihood of an unsafe event, like a crash. But when Strayer and a team of neuroscientists studied the 40 infotainment systems available in 2017 and 2018, they found that plugging a destination into a navigation system, for example, could pull a driver away from the road for up to 40 seconds. (While many in-car systems do not allow drivers to enter destinations while the car is in motion, 40 percent of those studied by the team did.)

The research concluded that many infotainment features were simply too distracting while the car is in motion. Even though CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto demanded less of drivers than other systems, the researchers found they still demanded too much. Five years is an eon in car tech, and many of those systems have since been updated. But because the design guidelines are recommendations, not rules, they haven’t necessarily been updated for the better.

What makes it all worse, says Strayer, is that humans are generally pretty crap at multitasking, whether it’s driving and plugging a destination in a navigation app or filling out a spreadsheet while watching Netflix. The 2.5 percent of humans who can multitask well tend to end up in the cockpits of fighter jets, he says, while the rest of us “think we can and do it really poorly.”

In a particularly unfortunate twist, the parts of the brain that are important for driving are the same parts of the brain that drivers use for navigating, whether that’s a road or an in-car menu of options. “The same neurons are trying to do two things at one time and they fight,” Strayer says. Even driving and using voice-enabled features—like texting or entering destinations—can be risky, because people tend to look at what they’re doing and try to proofread what they’ve entered, to make sure it’s right. The action also increases the cognitive load for the driver. Just speaking (or fumbling) with the voice assistant, in other words, takes up valuable brain space that’s better spent on driving.

Apple didn’t respond to questions about the next generation of CarPlay, and it hasn’t detailed specifics of how it will work. But an image released by the company shows detailed weather information, a calendar view, and whether the garage door is closed spread out across the dash. McGehee, the engineering professor, says these kinds of details could lead to unnecessary distraction. “You want to minimize the information while driving and confine it to the things that are important,” he says.

No matter how CarPlay comes out, what is certain is that touchscreens are here to stay, and knobs and switches are on their way out. But they “come with a special responsibility” for tech developers, McGehee says. “You have to do thorough testing in driving environments, and complex simulations so that you can understand the limits of human vision and cognition.” Maybe it’s cynical or maybe it’s realistic: The world is a distracting place—how can we make it as safe as it can be?

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