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In-Car Infotainment Systems are Distracting. Now What?

by Derek Viita | Oct 05, 2017

In what has become an almost-annual tradition, the American Automobile Association (AAA) is making the media rounds with distracted driving research the organization funded at the University of Utah.

Two prior press junkets from AAA focused on an effort to quantify cognitive load, and on a study which used that metric to assess in-car voice controls.  Strategy Analytics has previously discussed the limitations of these studies.  In brief: Cognitive load is an important design consideration for in-car infotainment, but at that time, the metric had no empirical evidence tying it to crash risk.  Since then, more notable naturalistic efforts (including research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, and a particularly compelling effort from the MIT AgeLab) have explored real-world distraction using data from real-world driving rather than highly-controlled experiments.

AAA is back again this week, armed with newly-funded findings.  Their most recent study examined the visual and cognitive distraction caused by different tasks in different embedded systems.  Infotainment tasks in 30 cars were tested along a 2-mile stretch of residential roadway.

As with previous AAA efforts, unrealistic methods were used to prove a tenuous point about cognitive load.  Rather than compare task-based distraction with natural real-world driving, researchers compared task workload to a controlled baseline and 2 irrelevant secondary tasks.  The intent, as per usual, was to measure cognitive load and explore differences between systems.  This despite the fact that, several years into this crusade, no AAA study has successfully shown a direct relationship between their own measurements and real-world crash rate.

More bluntly, this AAA-funded effort once again fails to thoroughly address the question every researcher must answer:  So what?  More specifically, what should these findings mean for future cockpit design?  How should these findings affect the holistic UX of driving a car?

The closest this study comes to answering the "so what" question is at the end of the discussion, where researchers suggest that task-based lockouts are the answer to the distraction epidemic.  Lip service is also paid to the role of task times.

System lockouts are cited often in research and guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the US (NHTSA) as a "cure-all" for distraction issues.  Unfortunately this will be an enormous practical challenge.  Especially when faced with current consumer demands in the car, all of which Strategy Analytics tracks regularly:

Strategy Analytics agrees that many in-car systems are complex, difficult to use, and potentially distracting.  This is supported by our own lengthy series of benchmarks using real consumers.  However, lockouts themselves create their own UX issues within the car, not least of which is unintended distraction caused by the lockout itself.  UX will always overrule design, so if the in-car design locks out a task drivers wish to accomplish, drivers will simply look for workarounds.  And this workaround will most likely involve the smartphone handset, which (as proven by many more robust naturalistic studies) is demonstrated to be more dangerous.

Automakers have roles to play here on 2 fronts.  First, the distraction debate is still being dominated by AAA, with its questionable methods and implications.  Second, current automaker-initiated innovations are limited to novel HMI (such as the voice assistant in the BMW 7-series and steering wheel touchpads in the Mercedes E-Class, both notably omitted from the current AAA study).  Other innovations providing superior in-car touch-and-voice UX are largely being designed by Alphabet and Apple for Android Auto and CarPlay respectively (2 other notable omissions from the AAA study).

Once again, we urge automakers to show leadership on these issues.  More meaningful steps must be taken to prove to the public that they (not AAA, nor NHTSA, nor Alphabet, nor Apple) should be entrusted to design systems which are useful, safe, and delightful.  A holistic UX-focused philosophy which encourages design from the driver outward is an excellent starting point.
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