When UI Design Is Dangerous: Car Technology Is Distracting Us All

Programming a route to an address takes an average of 40 seconds.

When UI Design Is Dangerous: Car Technology Is Distracting Us All
[Photo: Sjo/Getty Images]

Carmakers are cramming more and more technology into our cars–including the ones we still have to drive. This tech, often in the form of complicated “infotainment” systems, gives drivers the ability to take calls, send texts, navigate, and choose what to listen to through a screen on the dashboard.


Handy? Maybe; one in three U.S. adults uses one. And theoretically, they should be safer than peering at a mobile phone while driving. But a new study from the American Automotive Association found that these infotainment systems are actually very distracting–and even downright dangerous. At its core, this is a design problem: We need new in-car UX that balances convenience and safety.

[Photo: Mark Cruz/Unsplash]
The AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety commissioned researchers at the University of Utah to investigate the time drivers’ eyes spend away from the road, and the mental demand that tasks require when using these dashboard systems. They also tested how long it takes drivers to complete tasks like calling someone, sending a text, and programming navigation while driving. The researchers tested 30 different 2017 vehicles from a wide variety of carmakers, and found that 23 of these had “high” or “very high” demand on the driver–including the Tesla Model S, the Honda Civic Touring, and the Ford Fusion Titanium. Not a single car of the 30 required only “low” demand.

Unsurprisingly, the group found that typing in an address is the most distracting element of these systems; programming navigation takes an average of 40 seconds. At 25 miles per hour, that means a driver could be going the distance of four football fields while completely distracted from the road.

Part of the problem is that these interfaces require driver attention to complete any task–even if they’re using a voice command systems, as a previous study found. When they’re poorly designed they lead to mentally taxing frustration, another distraction. “Drivers want technology that is safe and easy to use, but many of the features added to infotainment systems today have resulted in overly complex and sometimes frustrating user experiences for drivers,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Some of the latest systems on the market now include functions unrelated to the core task of driving like sending text messages, checking social media or surfing the web–tasks we have no business doing behind the wheel.”

According to the AAA, the solution could be to shut down elements of these systems entirely while people are driving–meaning you couldn’t tweet and drive, even if you wanted to. Doney says that car infotainment systems should be about as mentally draining as listening to the radio or an audiobook–and halting drivers’ tendency to multitask on the road would make cars safer. The designers of these systems also have the responsibility of ensuring that the interactions they’re building aren’t going to result in accidents. More research is needed to ensure carmakers aren’t cramming technology into cars without thinking through the consequences.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.