Eyes off the Road: Study Confirms In-Car Tech Is Far Too Distracting ""
Posted on: October 6, 2017

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Touchscreens, voice controls, console-mounted clickwheels, touchpads—with all the different systems out there, which kind offers a safe, minimally distracting interface? None. That’s the distressing finding according to new research from AAA.

New cars of all categories place excessive demands on a driver’s mental workload, and automakers don’t block enough non-driving features while their vehicles are in motion, the study concludes. As a follow-up to a 2014 study conducted by the University of Utah that compared automaker systems and Apple Siri, AAA conducted a deeper dive of 30 cars with triple the number of test drivers. Researchers recruited 120 drivers with a median age of 25 to monitor how they reacted to inputting navigation directions, reading and sending text messages, dialing phone numbers, and operating the stereo. Each driver repeated those tasks using voice controls, the touchscreen or buttons on the center stack, and controls on the center console over a two-mile stretch of road at 25 mph. (Before you judge the results or become defensive, read the report’s 104 pages to see how tightly controlled and thorough the researchers were. It’s more detailed than anything the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has conducted.)

2018 Acura TLX V6 SH-AWD A-Spec - Infotainment

None of the 2017 model cars—30 pickups, large SUVs, crossovers, sedans, and hatchbacks—had an interface that AAA considered “low demand.” AAA found most drivers took more than 24 seconds to finish many common tasks. Following NHTSA distraction guidelines released in 2013, that’s the recommended maximum time drivers should be glancing from the road and completing a task while driving.

Tasks that took more than 24 seconds biased a vehicle’s score toward higher demand, while tasks that required less than 24 seconds resulted in a lower overall demand. Most distracting was navigation, which only 12 of the 30 cars were equipped with. On average, it took drivers 40 seconds to program directions, regardless of the input. At 25 mph, that’s the equivalent of traveling four football fields while fiddling with a screen.

Among the most distracting infotainment systems AAA tested were those in the Audi Q7, Ford Mustang, Honda Civic, Tesla Model S, Volvo XC60, and seven others. Those cars were rated as requiring Very High demand from the driver. The 11 vehicles rated as High demand included the Cadillac XT5, the Ford Fusion, and the Toyota RAV4. The Ford F-250, Lincoln MKC, Toyota Corolla, and four more vehicles were rated Moderate demand. While some cars with identical factory systems scored higher or lower than one another, keep in mind that a Mustang’s dash and vehicle controls are much different than those in a Fusion, for example.

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Regardless of car, AAA found that while voice commands lowered eyes-off-the-road time, the systems still stole drivers’ attention by taking much longer to finish. Touching a button or screen for two seconds, AAA said, was safer than interacting with voice controls for 20 seconds. Touchscreens and knobs on the center stack were deemed least distracting, while controlling these screens via touchpads, dials, and switches in the center stack were most distracting. Voice commands split the difference. Text messaging was more distracting than phone calls or operating the stereo. While some systems blocked inputs at speed, many didn’t. And it’s here that AAA has its biggest beef with automakers.

“Our objective assessment indicates that many of these features are just too distracting to be enabled while the vehicle is in motion,” the study said. “Greater consideration should be given to what [infotainment] features and functions should be available to the driver when the vehicle is in motion rather than to what [infotainment] features and functions could be available to motorists.”

AAA agreed with NHTSA that, in a moving car, on-screen messages unrelated to driving should be limited to 30 characters or less. The group also says that automakers should never display or allow drivers to input addresses, 10-digit phone numbers, text messages, websites, or social-media apps while driving. Some automakers are getting smarter: The Porsche Panamera, for instance, blocks the driver from configuring the car’s numerous system preferences while in motion, and Toyota grays out address inputs and Bluetooth device pairing. Our own response-time testing of various infotainment systems and our subsequent comparisons underline AAA’s point. Automakers seem far more interested in adding capabilities to their cars than they do is making those capabilities safe to use.

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