Automobile Makers are Trying to Kill Us with Touchscreen Dashboards

The forthcoming MBUX Hyperscreen, via Mercedes-Benz.

Back in 2013 I gave a talk about design usability which included a slide about the then-new Tesla touchscreen dashboard. Everyone was super hyped about how cool it was, but I was there to ruin the party with my criticism about a lack of tactile feedback.

In this case we’re talking about the role of muscle memory, which involves the consolidation of motor tasks into memory.

Take for example the adage “it’s just like riding a bike.” Once we’ve learned to ride a bike but haven’t done so in a long time, we can quickly pick it back up again with little cognitive effort because it’s part of our muscle memory. This is because the motor tasks of rotating the pedals and steering are engrained into our procedural memory. Which, together, are basically muscle memory.

Now, in the case of automobile dashboards with tactile controls (buttons, knobs, sliders, etc.) we learn how to operate them using motor tasks. This then becomes part of our procedural memory, which constructs the motor behavior of their function; essentially using physical characteristics to identify the control we’re touching and pair that with its respective interaction. This decreases cognitive load so we can retain more of that energy for the task of safe driving.

With touchscreen dashboards, on the other hand, we don’t have that tactile feedback. Consequently we have to put forth more of our cognitive energy into operating its controls. And this taps into the three primary types of distraction: visual, manual, and cognitive.

Excerpt from the CDC distracted driving fact sheet (PDF)

Operating a touchscreen device requires focusing our eyes on the product, while taking our hands off the wheel, and diverting mental attention to locating interaction targets which can’t be found via muscle memory. This is referred to as “distracted driving,” which according to the CDC kills 8 people every day in the United States.

In fact, AAA studies have shown that removing eyes from the road for only 2 seconds doubles the risk of an accident. And a new study in conjunction with the University of Utah, they show that operating touchscreen devices distracts for significantly longer periods of time, noting drivers being “visually and mentally distracted for more than 40 seconds.”

Tactile controls, on the other hand, mitigate the risk of distraction. They afford us an opportunity to take advantage of muscle memory which, as noted, reduces cognitive load.

So why are automobile makers obsessed with using touchscreen dashboards? Because they’re flashy. They’re cool. They say “this is high-tech.” And because, according to a AAA opinion survey, 70% of adults say they want them in their automobiles. So, demand.

But should demand be given such license? I think not. I believe we should treat drivers like children to protect them from themselves. And to protect the rest of us.

I’m obviously not a luddite. I absolutely love technology, personally and professionally. Touchscreens still captivate me, after all of these years. I just believe in ethical design, and touchscreen infotainment systems aren’t that.

Meditator, experience designer, technologist, international public speaker, writer, family man, soccer addict, activist ✊🏻