from the time-for-head-up-displays? dept.
You're driving and you're bored. Tired of staring at the road, your eyes drift toward the polished touchscreen to the right of your steering wheel—what the auto industry calls your "infotainment" system. First you scroll through its menus to select a pump-me-up playlist; then you use its mapping tool to reroute toward a nearby Starbucks.
Sounds like a typical driving experience these days. Sure, you temporarily looked away from the road while tapping through the infotainment system, but that's no big deal. Right?
Well, it could be. You might have been distracted for as long as 40 seconds while changing your destination, according to an analysis by the AAA Foundation—long enough to cover half a mile at 50 mph. As for choosing playlists, one study found that drivers selecting music with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto had slower reaction times than those who were high from smoking pot.
"Today's infotainment systems can be as distracting—if not more so—than personal electronic devices," says Jennifer Homendy, the newly confirmed chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. The federal government blames distraction for around 10 percent of the 38,680 annual traffic fatalities in the United States, but that's almost certainly an underestimate, since people aren't inclined to admit they were fiddling with a phone or a navigation system prior to a crash.
The problem isn't necessarily that infotainment displays are now a standard feature of all new vehicles; in theory, at least, they're preferable to drivers squinting to read a phone while operating a vehicle. But these systems are rapidly becoming glitzier, more complicated, and just plain bigger, with some resembling supersized tablets attached to your car console. Meanwhile, they're essentially unregulated.
Staff at the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are aware of infotainment's risk of distraction, and they have advised carmakers to avoid egregiously dangerous designs and functionalities. But carmakers know that infotainment presents one of their best chances to stand out from competitors. "When you go to a dealership, it's almost a given that the car will have a five-star crash rating, and that it accelerates and brakes quickly," says Kelly Funkhouser, the head of connected and automated vehicles at Consumer Reports. "What makes a difference in the car you actually pick is the infotainment system." That becomes even more true in a world of electric vehicles, which lack much of the sound and feel that seem to confer a unique character on cars with internal-combustion engines. (MotorTrend's ranking of the model year's best "exhaust sounds" doesn't work for electric vehicles that emit no exhaust.)
David G. Kidd, Jonathan Dobres, Ian Reagan, et al. Considering visual-manual tasks performed during highway driving in the context of two different sets of guidelines for embedded in-vehicle electronic systems, Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour (DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trf.2017.04.002)