Big Screen Fever
Modern technology seeks to solve problems and make things easier for us. From the early AM car radios to citizen band radios, all the way to CD players and auxiliary cables, the technology used for car information and entertainment has been historically audio based with tactile controls. Is this shift to bigger and brighter screens as good of an idea as it looks?
Maybe the bigger is better mentality stems from the seemingly endless desire for larger and larger flat screen TVs, and more recently cell phones. As the car infotainment center developed, it would seem to have capitalized on this desire. When one sees one of the newest big screen stereos, like the ones Tesla is known for, the idea of it seems very advanced, futuristic, and desirable.
When shopping for aftermarket stereo units it seems to harbor a must have echelon. Those who sell their cars proudly advertise “upgraded aftermarket stereo with touchscreen!”. Websites I saw selling these multimedia stereos boast how large and bright and colorful the units are and speak of nothing but their merits. It makes sense from a sales standpoint but so did the old cigarette advertisements.
It's not to say there are no merits to having information and entertainment in a car. Having music, news, podcasts, talk shows, etc. on while driving keeps you mentally awake and engaged. It helps you avoid highway hypnosis, like when you arrive home and forget how you got there. The question isn't if there is value to accessing audio based media, it's the way you go about it.
Yet there is a case to be made that it only adds another distracting element to an already dangerous trend. Distracted driving led to 3,142 deaths in 2019 according to research from The U.S Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
One study even stated these infotainment systems garnered reaction times worse than cannabis or alcohol use, and even worse than texting and driving! When the data leads us to these conclusions, it might make you question why you can get a ticket for using a cell phone, but the touchscreen stereo is legal to use.
Answering To A Bell
Our society has become extremely attached to their cell phones to the point where it is a chemical dependency issue. The notifications reward with dopamine, like some sort of Pavlov’s dogs conditioning. From simply using your own observations, how many times have you yourself been sitting at a light waiting to turn for example, and see the driver next to you texting?
Thankfully, it is at a stop at least, but then once the light turns, they only briefly look up after holding up the line and then accelerate quickly to span the gap while looking down at their phone again? What if the car in front of them brakes suddenly? Disaster is either caused or avoided based on seconds spent observing what you are doing, or neglecting it.
These car infotainment systems are like a large cellphone in your face, without the ability to decide to put it away most of the time. Some screens have the option to shut off or fold away, but when it is the primary method used for your information, is it enough?
Other Visual Considerations
When one is driving at night, even if the system dims down, it is still brighter than the road most often and forces your eyes to adjust multiple times while checking the info. This leads to eye strain over a long drive, as eye fatigue is a quite common condition nowadays. Adjusting to differing light levels and simply glancing away leads to losing vital seconds not having full command over your sight.
Many of these touchscreen systems do not have any tactile feedback, so you need to look to see what button you are pushing. Older folks also have more difficulty with this according to research. With an old school radio, you can learn the buttons and feel for them. While you may learn the layout of a touchscreen, there are multiple screen options and if you don’t remember where you left off, and have no touch feedback, it is very difficult to use by heart.
Voice commands are a good solution however simply having the large screen is a visual distraction and it does seek your attention. It is designed to look attractive and to make you want it. Some of them even advertise having the ability to play video and DVD’s and although these are disabled while driving with something called a “video lockout system”, they are regularly overridden and there are tutorials all over YouTube.
This may lead to legal action against the manufacturers or designers of these systems!
Now you might say there are old alternatives to these distractions. Maybe a big foldable map blocking your view, maybe reading a newspaper while driving. I have seen both, though not for years. There are some timeless distractions like eating while driving or applying makeup or God forbid having an argument while driving.
Maybe these old examples are used to excuse the new dangers, to wave it off and dismiss it as exaggerated. Yet, any archaic examples of distractions and excuses aside, the goal of advancing technology should not just be to pack as many features as possible for flashy or impressive marketable reasons. The goal is to improve.
Some Hope Is Found
During my research for this article, I found out Mazda seems to agree with me. After making their own observations about safety, they eliminated the infotainment system from their vehicles and replaced it with a heads-up display designed to minimize looking away from the road and opted for buttons rather than a touchscreen display.
The higher goal for new technology should be to improve things in a balance of wants and needs. Designers and engineers are tasked with seamlessly integrating technology to make it a better experience and safer. Technology seeks to, on a deeper level, aid our survival through the use of tools.
The car infotainment system seems to have taken cues from marketing teams and salesmen rather than the designers and researchers. If we let the market forces direct the development of a car too heavily, we take it as a given something is safe simply because it is included in the car. While considering this, it is perhaps germane to remember seat belts were once not included, nor airbags.
We should not forget to take responsibility for our safety. Rather than rely on a machine to give us turn by turn directions, and being reactive, maybe we should go back to studying the route before we leave. We do not want to end up like Michael Scott from The Office and drive our car into a lake because the GPS told us so.
After All The Evidence
This writer concludes that while there is value to handsfree Bluetooth and voice commands, a car stereo would be much safer without a big bright screen. The controls should have recognizable tactile response. The modern infotainment center seems like a sort of pacifier for the cell phone we almost never don’t have in hand anymore . It seems like a compromise, but when it comes to directing a heavy metal object hurtling down the road, safety is not something that should get sacrificed for sales.
A driver should remove distractions as much as possible, make sure their windows are cleared of snow in the winter even if it makes them late to work, change their windshield wipers and not text and drive, and they certainly do not need a bright touchscreen miniature television that directs their gaze away from the road.