Infotainment Screens Actually Distract Drivers, Study Shows

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  • Touchscreens have become a common sight in new cars, with manufacturers saying these infotainment systems are safer than a cluttered mess of knobs and buttons.
  • A group of automotive journalists in Sweden put these claims to the test by timing the infotainment functions of 11 brand-new models alongside a 2005 Volvo V70 with no screen.
  • The results show a spread of efficiently designed menus and intelligent screen placement alongside slow and complex user interfaces and poorly angled displays.

    Screens are all the rage in automotive interior design these days. From the vertically mounted, foot-long vertical tablets you see in Teslas and Ram trucks to the horizontal screens optioned by BMW and Chevrolet, it’s hard to avoid a touchscreen infotainment system. In some cases, even climate controls are no longer independent from the stereo and navigation, being baked into a series of menus.

    2022 volvo c40 recharge interior

    The placement and overall user experience of the Volvo C40’s screen and radio controls made this model a runner up in the Swedish test.


    Manufacturers say these screens are not only an advanced piece of 21st-century technology but can be safer than the traditional button array that dominated car interiors for decades. A group of journalists in Sweden has put this claim to the test. The ViBilägare team used 12 different vehicles, ranging from a 2005 Volvo V70 (without any screen) to the newest BMW iX EV and even a Seat Leon. Given that the price range of a vehicle readily affects the kind of screen installed, the test included modern vehicles from the low, middle, and high-end segments.

    The test was simple but indicative of driving conditions that owners face daily. After having ample time to familiarize themselves with the controls, testers were instructed to drive at 68 mph and perform tasks like changing the radio station, resetting the trip computer, and adjusting the cabin temperature. A timekeeper in the passenger seat recorded the time it took to complete all the tasks and how far the vehicle traveled until they were complete. And the results might surprise you.

    Simple switchgear—such as seen here in the 2005 Volvo V70—can be far more intuitive than scrolling through screens, the study showed.

    Glenn Lindberg/Vi Bilägare

    The outright winner of the test was the screen-free 2005 Volvo V70, allowing drivers to complete the tasks in just 10 seconds using solely buttons. Perhaps this result should not be surprising, as the Swedish journalists conducting the tests have been familiar with the V70 for 17 years.

    Runner-up models include the Dacia Sandero, in which the tasks were completed in 13.5 seconds, and the Volvo C40, accounting for a 13.7-second timespan until task completion. Both of these models include a simple but useful touchscreen, indicating that touchscreens don’t have to be distracting by design.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the MG Marvel R’s infotainment system was so complicated that it took testers a whopping 44.9 seconds to complete the tasks. In that time, the hatchback traveled nearly a mile down the road, despite having the largest screen of the group. The MG was the worst performer by a wide margin, but the BMW iX and Seat Leon also proved to be technologically challenging. With a time of 30.4 seconds for the BMW and 29.3 for the Seat, both systems were noted as being overly complicated and required multiple touches to reach the desired function.

    The driver of the MG Marvel R needs to look downward nearly 60 degrees, diverting their eyes away from the road entirely.

    Glenn Lindberg/Vi Bilägare

    Overall, the average time of all 12 models was 23.5 seconds, with most models requiring between 19 and 26 seconds for the drivers to complete the tasks. Other notable models include the Subaru Outback, with a quick time of 19.4 seconds, and the Hyundai Ioniq 5, with a slower time of 26.7 seconds.

    The results might seem puzzling at first, given that manufacturers are flocking to screens, but the rationale behind these decisions isn’t without merit. For one, allowing the infotainment screen to display directions and verbalize them through the vehicle’s speakers is undoubtedly safer than trying to glance at your minuscule phone screen while hurtling down the highway.

    Manufacturers tend to agree this approach will limit phone use while driving and will keep drivers looking forward (given that the screens are often mounted at eye level) instead of down into an array of buttons.

    However, the ability of our brains to memorize the placement of certain buttons is strong and is augmented by user design that makes the feel and function of specific buttons intuitive. The study also found that the angle of the screen makes a significant difference.

    For example, the MG has a screen that requires drivers to look downward 56 degrees, while the Mercedes GLB (20.2 seconds) only requires a 20-degree downward glance. Additionally, the common denominator among models struggling through the test was a lack of backlighting, making some functions difficult to see at night. The study also says many manufacturers rely heavily on voice controls, which were glitchy and unreliable years ago but have gotten much better.

    As interior design increasingly moves toward screens and haptic touch, it’s worth remembering that always-necessary radio and climate functions must be easy to use. That doesn’t mean touchscreens have to go, but the interior design teams that every automaker has assembled to achieve a frustration-free user experience still have work to do. It’s true that most newly designed cars have few old-school switches, but the one key system that generally gets redundant hard buttons (in addition to touchscreen access) is climate control.

    Do you prefer proprietary infotainment or systems like AppleCarPlay or Android Auto? Share your preference in the comments below.

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