Motor Mouth: Infotainment systems are distracting, period

AAA study finds that, while some systems are better than others, all take a driver away from driving

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Have you ever given any thought to all the distractions in your car? Oh, I know you get the concept of distraction, that any distraction from the task of driving a car is bad, and some of you may even know that distraction has leapt ahead of drunk driving as the scourge of personal responsibility behind the wheel. But, have you ever thought about the exact nature of distraction, what it is that causes you to not pay attention to your driving and, more exactly, what are the multiple variables — and believe you me they are multiple — that are involved in even simple tasks like changing a radio station?

Probably not, right? But the American Automobile as Infotainment Distractions Association — or more accurately, the AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety — sure has.

Its recent Visual and Cognitive Demands of Using In-Vehicle Infotainment Systems literally breaks down all the seemingly automatic tasks we perform to determine, among other things, what is most distracting about all the stupid stuff we do in cars.

So, thanks to the University of Utah’s School of Social and Behavioural Science, we know there are basically three types of ‘tasks’ that take our minds, eyes and hands away from the job at hand (which, I hope I don’t need to remind you, is supposed to be driving the damned car). The first, visual, is easily understood; if your eyes are focusing on the centre stack or console, they’re not looking down the road. Manual tasks, too, are easily appreciated, the act of flipping said radio station requiring taking your hands away from your central task (again, steering the damned car). Less appreciated, however, are the cognitive loads, the decision-making that distracts from said primary task (all together now: driving the damned car).

Indeed, if there’s an immediate takeaway to the AAA’s (quite exhaustive) study, it’s that that the adverse effects of cognitive distraction are under-appreciated. The University of Utah’s researchers, for instance, determined (no surprise here) that the most distracting interaction for the test’s participants involved fiddling with controls in the centre console (where the infotainment system mouse and buttonry is often located). The visual distraction of averting your eyes — all the way, in this case, from the road ahead to the area between the seats — was particularly acute.

What will surprise many, however, is that voice-activation commands are more distracting than interactions with the centre stack — where the audio and air conditioning controls are located — the cognitive workload of remembering how to phrase your command a greater distraction than the momentary glance from the road ahead. As the authors conclude, “just because auditory/vocal interactions tend to keep the eyes on the road does not provide a guarantee that drivers will see what they are looking at.”

Of course, few tasks are so discrete that they involve only one or even just two of those distraction mechanisms. Just changing a radio station, for instance, requires that we look at the audio interface (visual), determine which station we want to listen to (cognitive) and then change the channel (manual). Relatively simple versions of each task, to be sure, but now consider something more difficult like trying to input an address into your navigation system while driving (a major no-no, say the authors). You have to key in all the letters/numbers (multiple manual tasks), your eyes have to look at the screen (an average of 40 seconds of visual distraction, says the study) and the whole process requires a boatload of cognitive concentration as you try to remember the address — all while (and I really shouldn’t need to repeat myself again) you’re driving.

What makes the AAA study most interesting — at least to a geek such as Yours Truly — is that intuitive solutions can often lead us astray. As mentioned, navigation address entry was the most distracting task tested in the study yet is often allowed while driving. On the other hand, cellphoning — much denigrated as dangerous — was one of the “lowest demand” activities. It might also be common sense to think that touchscreens would be the answer to the complex buttonry found in many automobiles. However, the AAA researchers found that the much-acclaimed 17-inch touchscreen found in Tesla’s Model S was, by far, the most visually-demanding system in the test.

Indeed, perhaps the most startling conclusion of the study is that no one design — voice control, touchscreens or computer-like mouse and buttons — is universally superior. For instance, according to the authors, “using voice commands to select music or place phone calls was associated with lower levels of workload than for other interactions.” On the other hand, using a touch screen was the least demanding way to send a text message while — surprisingly — voice commands were the most demanding method of texting.

There are even more useful conclusions we can infer from the AAA study. First is that allowing navigation destination entry while driving should be verboten. By the study’s own determination, the 40 seconds needed to key in an address is about half a kilometre of distraction even when driving at a lowly 40 km/h. Second, complex tasks, not matter how many times practiced, do not become substantially less distracting with repetition. Automakers — and they are manifold — who justify their systems’ complexity by relying on familiarity are plainly full of bull patooties.

The last is that the success of any infotainment seems less driven by the hardware chosen — i.e. voice controls, touchscreens, etc. — than the quality of the software controlling it. While the report does find some specific infotainment systems better than others, the one glaring conclusion is that the perfect combination of non-distracting visual cues, easily manipulated manual tasks and low cognitive load audio commands does not yet exist. More importantly, such a perfect combination might never exist.

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