Touchscreens in cars? This can only end badly.

A few months ago, I was pulled over for “texting” while driving. Fortunately, I was given only a warning. But that warning was given by the most pissed off cop I’ve ever encountered.

I was driving down Bethel Road, passing strip malls and plazas in the rain. Yeah, it was raining, so I was taking it slow…and then I decided to mess with my phone. I used a voice command to do a Google search at a stoplight. The search loaded, the light turned green, and I was off, driving slowly and reading my phone. After a minute or so of alternating glances from the road to my phone and back, I noticed a police cruiser alongside of me on the left. And I also noticed a police officer in that cruiser shouting and angrily pointing at me. I remember mouthing the word “sorry”, and quickly put down my phone. At that point, the reds and blues started flashing, and I pulled over to the right.

I shut off the car, and opened my door, hoping the officer wouldn’t think I was trying to get a jump on him, and shoot me; my driver’s side window wouldn’t go down. He walked up to my car, and swung the door wide open.

“DO YOU KNOW IT IS AGAINST THE LAW TO TEXT WHILE DRIVING IN THE STATE OF OHIO???”

“Yes, I’m very sorry, officer. The phone rang, and I just picked it up to see who it is…” [A total lie…yes, I know. I’m going to hell.]

“YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD, AND OFF THE PHONE! PAY ATTENTION!!!”

At that point, he slammed my door shut, and then proceeded to yell at a woman driving a Toyota Sienna passing him on the road. “SLOW DOWN!!! WHAT IS WITH YOU PEOPLE???” He then got in his cruiser and drove away.

I admit, what I did was wrong. I was driving (a manual transmission car, no less), and it was rainy, and I was looking at my phone instead of the road for a moment. But I wasn’t texting. I was surfing the web…which, in my eyes, isn’t so bad. Let me explain. I wasn’t inputting text, with my hands, into my phone. I specifically used voice commands to avoid typing while driving. And at the time the officer saw me, I was just reading Google search results. Not texting at all. What was I looking at? While I was driving, I felt some weird vibration in my clutch pedal. Naturally, when I was at a stop, I voice Google-searched “BMW E30 throw out bearing noise”, and started to peruse the results…that’s when the shouting/finger pointing started. Yes, I lied to the officer saying that I was looking at someone who called my phone. I suppose I could have told the truth, and said, “Oh, I understand texting and driving is illegal, but I wasn’t doing that. I was actually looking at some Google search results regarding the clutch in this car. So, I wasn’t really typing anything, which is what texting is. I was just scrolling and reading.” I’m sure THAT would’ve gone over well/gotten me an angrily-written ticket. But it’s the truth. I didn’t type at all when he spotted me looking at my phone.

Tesla Model S interior & some douchebag NAIAS 2012

I took this really crappy photo at NAIAS 2012. Yes, that is the interior of the battery-powered Tesla Model S, with it’s ginormous dash-mounted 17″ touchscreen LCD display and ginormous LCD gauge cluster. And yes, that is a guy, sitting in the Model S, looking at his iPhone, while also looking at the ginormous in-dash displays. Do you want to see how ridiculous this interface is? Just watch this video. Also make note that Tesla has stated they will not disable the touchscreen while the car is moving.

LCD touchscreen displays are now making their way to many an automotive dash, and not just in pricey, possible-vaporware electric vehicles. I’m sure you’ve all seen reports of the MyFord Touch system, the newly introduced Cadillac CUE system, and other terribly-named touchscreen interfaces from other manufacturers. Why are automakers pushing these systems? I’m guessing there are three main reasons:

  1. saving money in the long run
  2. people love the iPhone/iPad
  3. people love the iPhone/iPad.

Reason 1 is actually…reasonable. I mean, if a manufacturer can invest in a touchscreen system now, and later have this system placed in their whole line of automobiles, they would save a lot of money that would be needed to design and manufacture physical interior controls for their entire model line-up. But I suspect reasons 2 and 3 also play a big part in the pushing of these systems. Touchscreens are the future…IN YOUR CAR…RIGHT NOW. Just look at this commercial from Cadillac, highlighting their CUE system in the new XTS.

Count the number buttons in your car. Now, count the number of buttons on your tablet. Isn’t it time the automobile advanced?

The simplicity of a tablet has come to your car.

But see, tablets aren’t all that simple to use. Sure, we know how to use them…now. But honestly, we, as people, are really just getting used to the ideas of touchscreen interfaces. Think about this: just five years ago, none of us really had any device with a touchscreen, or had any experience using a touchscreen. Words like ‘swipe’ or ‘tap’ were not in our vocabulary, just as terms like ‘click’ and ‘drag’ weren’t in our vocabulary 20+ years ago. As I said earlier, when I got pulled over, I was looking at my phone, swiping down the Google search list. My phone, just like those fancy Tesla and Cadillac displays, is a touchscreen. And the inherent flaw with touchscreens is the fact that one must look directly at the interface in order to interact with it. You must use your sense of touch in addition to your sense of sight to interact with a touchscreen display. You’re saying “Well, obviously.” But is it really so obvious? As drivers, we are so used to tactile buttons and knobs in our cars, because they’ve been there for our entire driving lives, and with good reason. Here’s a situation: it’s late at night, pitch black outside. You get in your car. For some reason, the interior lights don’t come on. Do you know how to turn on your car’s headlights? I’m sure you know what area of the dash your headlight switch is. And I bet you can reach for the knob or dial, feeling it with your fingers, so you can turn it on. Did you have to see the knob or dial, and read the symbols on it in order to operate the headlights? Of course not. With most physical interfaces, we rely on only one sense: touch.

A look at modern touchscreen automobile interfaces shows a display of virtual buttons and sliders. These buttons may even look like their physical counterparts, and we may even be able to interact with them in the same way…except we can’t feel them. These buttons have no dimension; they’re flat. That three-dimensional looking button is just a three-dimensional looking graphic of a button on a screen. Pressing our finger on the screen feels just like pressing our finger on a window, or a table, or any flat surface, regardless if there are button icons on the surface or not. We can’t tell what we’re pressing unless we’re looking directly at the screen and understand what the graphic under our finger is telling us. There is a way manufacturers can create a sense of tactile feedback, and that’s through using haptic technology; having physical feedback in the form of vibrations/sound or simulating the feeling of texture when using touchscreen controls. If manufacturers are set on using touch screen systems in their cars, utilizing haptic feedback is a step in the right direction. The new Cadillac CUE system utilizes haptics. However, I have heard that when asked if future updates to the MyFord Touch system would employ haptics, Ford execs seemed to say no, claiming the feature was “gimmicky”. Huh.

Even with a touchscreen using haptic feedback, we’re still utilizing two senses—the sense of touch, and the sense of sight—in order to enable a function in our car. And that sense of sight…we kinda need that to be focused on the road. And now you’re probably saying, “Wait, you also need your sense of sight when you’re pushing normal buttons on a car dash.” But…do you?

Using my previous example of the headlight switch, do you really have to read the label on the switch in order for you to know that what you’re touching is the switch for the headlights? Switches and buttons in our cars are real, physical things. We can feel around for them with our fingers, while keeping our eyes on the road. Also, these buttons are most likely hard-wired to have one function, and these buttons don’t move around. Compare this to a touchscreen, which can be reconfigured to show different icons at different times, revealing controls for different functions [in this case, switching from music/radio to navigation].

Getting pulled over by the angry cop got me thinking about all this. It also made me thankful that the cop was just angry, and didn’t give me an expensive ticket. But as I said, I wasn’t texting; I was using my phone’s touchscreen interface. In the near future, when many—if not all—automobiles have some sort of touchscreen interface, what happens when people are distracted by their own car’s interface? Will this fall under the “texting while driving” law? Using my phone while driving was wrong. No, I was not ‘texting’ while driving, but yes, I took my eyes off the road to look at and interact with my phone’s screen. Now, what happens when someone takes their eyes off the road to look at their car’s touch screen display. “I’m sorry, Officer. I was trying to change the music playing, then I wanted to turn the air conditioning up. But I was on the ‘make a phone call’ screen. So I hit the back arrow…but then it went to the navigation screen by accident. I had to go back to the main screen, and then go into the climate control menu…and then I swerved onto the sidewalk. And that’s when you pulled me over. ” Will we be cited for distracted driving, when our automobile interior interfaces require us to focus our attention in order to operate our cars? Have we really solved any problems by putting our phone interfaces into the dashes of the cars we drive? Yes, we are no longer holding our phones while driving, but is interacting with a center console screen while driving much better?