Smartphones are Driving Us to Distraction

Imagine how dull the driving experience would be without an in-car entertainment system

With nothing to entertain us during those miles of motorways, the unbroken monotony would put us in danger of dropping off at the wheel.

Yet when radios were first introduced into motor vehicles, legislators and consumers were alarmed that they would prove dangerous distractions. And they weren’t too far wrong, with many accidents caused by drivers fiddling with the dial.

Eventually, the car industry managed to swerve this danger by incorporating audio controls in or around the steering column, so drivers could always keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. Today, the car industry needs to make a similar safety improvement to combat the menace of smartphone distraction.

The smartphone ‘menace’

Our mobile devices are our portable podcast and music library, our portal to radio stations and, of course, online mapping software. Car manufacturers were quick to accommodate these devices by enabling drivers to plug their phone into the vehicle’s onboard entertainment system.

But here’s the problem – digital devices are designed to attract our attention. The bleeps, whistles and lights of smartphone alerts are a constant source of distraction. Little wonder that the average person checks their phone 55 times a day. It might be rude to look at your messages at a dinner party but doing it on the road can be deadly. So why has the industry been so slow to provide a solution?

Solutions from the technology industry…

The technology industry is well aware of the problem, which is why device manufacturers have introduced ‘do not disturb’ modes specially designed to block distractions while driving. Meanwhile, apps like CarPlay and Drivemode can help by simplifying the device interface, enabling drivers to select maps, messaging or music with a single touch of the screen.

Besides what to show, theses apps give careful thought to how things are shown. When a message is received, it is never shown on the display. Content is always limited so it doesn’t distract you from driving. Even with these technologies (and with voice control), we must beware the cognitive load of concentrating on anything unrelated to driving.

Cars are no longer simple vehicles for travelling from A to B: they are four-wheeled supercomputers bristling with sensors, always connected to our digital lives. This means that manufacturers need to learn some of the lessons from the technology industry and revamp their approach to digital innovations – especially those that might distract the driver.

The future of in-car technology

When designing new vehicles, manufacturers must take into account the many different tasks that a driver might need to perform, and the scenarios in which they do so. A driver might be planning their route while sitting on the driveway, or they could be changing music in the fast lane. They must also consider other passengers, who can affect the interaction that the driver has with their vehicle and its technology; for example, a conversation between the driver and passenger that’s interrupted by the satnav’s next voice instruction. Besides all this, there’s the interaction with other road users to take into consideration.

Voice control is the best method of interaction with entertainment and other systems that aren’t directly connected with driving. The technology is constantly improving and is fast approaching a level that enables us to talk to our cars in a very natural and human way. But manufacturers can’t be content with simply borrowing and implementing voice technologies “as-is”. They need to consider that driving is a dynamic task. And how complex tasks such as asking for directions or changing in-car entertainment can be achieved with the maximum simplicity and the lowest cognitive load on the driver.

We are heading in the right direction: towards a more humanised UI that acts as your in-car co-pilot. These will soon be able to read out your text messages and even send your dictated reply; change the temperature of your seat or guide you to the nearest fuel station. But most importantly, these assistants should be able to understand when you should, under no circumstances, distract you when you’re crossing a complex intersection. One that knows you can’t listen just now, since your kid in the back is crying loudly. And one that double checks whether you saw the car coming from the right.

We often forget what a skilled business it is to drive a car. It’s increasingly – and rightly – difficult to pass the driving test; a reflection of the huge responsibility we shoulder whenever we climb into the driver’s seat. In-car technology shouldn’t add to the difficulty of driving; instead, it can be a constant companion that makes the roads a safer place for all.

About the Author

Paul Schouten is Automotive UX Designer, TomTom. All businesses have a responsibility to do good. We take this to heart. In our 30 years of disruptive mapmaking, our relentless innovation in location technologies has always revolved around driving progress. Together, we are creating a safer, cleaner, congestion-free world.

Featured image: ©Denys Prykhodov