Infotainment: Eyes off the road

In-car smartphone use takes up most vehicle safety headlines, but other interfaces could be just as dangerous

Chris Bush, head of experience design at UX agency Sigma, considers whether overly complex design is making cars a safety risk

Attention or lack thereof can kill. Indeed, a recent study found that more than three quarters of crashes (78%) and almost two thirds of near crashes (65%) are caused by driver inattention. But what causes this distraction?

Over time, the in-car console has gradually moved towards more technologically advanced screen-based interfaces. This often takes the form of complex infotainment systems that contain much of the information needed to adjust settings within the vehicle in one place.

While in-car phone use naturally takes up most of the headlines in the vehicle safety space, the in-car interface could in fact be as distracting – and therefore as dangerous – as using phones.

With that, the question must be asked: Is the ongoing desire to perfect the in-car experience through digitising it creating a safety risk?

 

Death by distraction

Research shows that overly complex in-car interfaces act as dangerous distractions to drivers, taking their attention off the road for up to 40 seconds at a time in some cases.

To illustrate just how dangerous this could be, if a driver is travelling at 48km/h that could be approximately 533m where their attention isn’t on the road – the equivalent of almost six regulation football pitches (90m) laid end-to-end.

While more complex menu-based interfaces certainly have their uses, particularly in a stationary car, their usability dips dramatically once the car is in motion. Often, even the most basic functions – such as changing the radio station – require the driver to take their eyes off the road to locate the correct on-screen button, which fragments the driver’s attention and increases cognitive load.

The functions associated with an in-car interface, such as GPS navigation, controlling the radio and effective parking, are not the most important consideration to a driver, being secondary to the overall safe operation of the vehicle. When drivers have to balance these needs simultaneously – both of which require significant visual and cognitive input from the driver – their attention fractures. This leaves them at greater risk of being unable to perceive oncoming hazards in a timely fashion and increasing the risk of accidents.

The more software-based interfaces become, the greater the risk may in turn become to safety. There is a clear opportunity to make things better by more fully considering driver needs and the overall user journey at each stage of the design process – an opportunity that should be heeded.

 

Digital interfaces

As the in-car interface has become further digitised, different manufacturers have had very different ideas on how this interface should look and feel.

For example, while the Nissan Qashqai has a standard 17.8cm touchscreen, the Tesla Model S opts for a 43cm screen – the size of a standard laptop – and has a very different menu layout.

The growth of these touchscreen interfaces leads to two issues: touchscreens give rise to more variety in interface design – controls are not in the same place as they may be in other cars, and they require drivers to take their eyes off the road to find and use the control they need.

The difference in interfaces and controls in particular can confuse drivers who may have been used to another vehicle, causing potential safety risks to drivers who are operating an unfamiliar vehicle and are required to operate a new system on the move.

Considering how many people in the UK rent cars each year – 15.5 million rental transactions occur annually, according to the British Vehicle Rental & Leasing Association  – additional issues could arise as these drivers have to operate a variety of different in-car interfaces.

 

User needs

A great, thoughtful user interface should anticipate user needs and make the overall user experience simpler and more efficient. However, no two users will have exactly the same preferences in how they wish to access and make use of information, and interfaces should reflect this. Currently, manufacturers often adopt a one-size-fits-all mentality, cramming as much information onto the interface as possible.

While some drivers may prefer to have masses of information in front of them, the majority of drivers simply don’t need – or want – information such as their RPM or engine temperature displayed at all times.

From an accessibility standpoint, the rise of complex, cluttered infotainment systems raises a variety of issues. Drivers with cognitive conditions, such as autism, may be over stimulated by the sheer volume of information in front of them and require a simpler, more consistent layout free of peripheral lights and brightly coloured information.

Drivers of ranging visual ability – there is an entire spectrum between 20:20 vision and blindness – may also rely upon the tactile feedback provided by simpler, button-based interfaces to control their vehicle, and may be excluded from driving safely by our migration to touchscreens.

Even temporary situational impairments, such as stress on the commute to and from work, can leave a driver less focused on the road and more susceptible to oncoming hazards. This issue can be exacerbated by overloaded, difficult to navigate interfaces, which do not allow for customisation according to user needs.

To solve this problem, interfaces need to be designed more thoughtfully to be customisable, moving from convoluted, direct control interfaces to those that are more on-demand, showing various points of information as and when they’re needed. Instead of trying to shoehorn as much information as possible onto the interface at any one time, drivers should be able to pick and choose which information is displayed at any given time, allowing for interfaces that best suit each driver’s preference and situation.

 

Balance

It’s time to consider the benefits of a more human-centred design approach, with the driver – rather than the vehicle – at front of mind at every step of the design process. While technology can be a great boon to the in-car experience in places, care should be taken not to become fully reliant upon it to the detriment of in-car usability.

It’s not about innovation for innovation’s sake, attempting to include every exciting new technology – such as, for example, augmented reality – into car interfaces. Instead, thoughtful use of emerging technologies – such as quick, simple voice control commands – could have a transformative impact on the way in which vehicles are controlled, allowing the driver to control their vehicle without taking their eyes off the road.

Finding the right balance between tactile and screen-based controls is key. While certain functions are certainly best served by a touchscreen – such as GPS navigation – other functions, which are often performed while driving, may require buttons and dials. For example, making adjustments to the in-vehicle climate will often be performed while a vehicle is in motion and therefore often needs to be performed without sight, meaning tactile feedback is key.

Essentially, it’s all about finding the right balance between human and machine. Technology should always enable – never hinder – safety and usability, and it’s high time our in-car interfaces reflected this.

Chris Bush is head of experience design at UX agency Sigma

www.wearesigma.com

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