We all know how addictive screens are. And yet, after endless campaigns to get teenagers to stop staring at their screens while driving, we’re introducing cars that practically require it. Why?

The Good

Screens exist basically everywhere. They’re oftentimes a good substitute for analog buttons, as in the case of phone keyboards, and can provide more flexibility and wear-time if the screen is going to be in front of the public, as in self-serve checkout screens in grocery stores. They’re easier to clean and more difficult to break.

However, screens and analog buttons don’t have to be enemies. Some modern cars come with air conditioning that can be set to an exact degree to aim for, but the number of possible answers means a digital readout is required. It gets both a screen and a set of buttons.

Other things necessitate screens if the customer wants them as a feature. You don’t have to have a screen for the radio, the buttons could perform all of the functionalities just fine, but if the customer wants to know the temperature outside, that takes a screen. Plus, that screenless radio would be annoying to select presets for, so they almost universally come with some sort of screen or indicator for the channels. Bigger, more complex car radios with screens can show more information about the broadcast, too!

Some features that help with safety and ease-of-driving come with screens too – backup cameras need a screen to function. There’s no way for that feature to exist without a screen somewhere, so it may as well be in the dashboard of the car.

The Bad

That being said…

Some things are better suited for buttons and physical inputs. Someone can adjust their volume by simply grazing their hand along the surface of the interior dash until they get to the right knob. Trying to do that with analog buttons and a digital readout is also doable – they will be able to both feel and hear the difference (of switching stations) in hitting different buttons, so they’ll eventually be able to land on the right one, as long as their fingers are on the buttons. Doing it with no physical feedback requires taking eyes off the road, otherwise the user doesn’t know if their fingers are even on the buttons on-screen.

Extra features that are useful are also often distracting while on-screen, so it’s not totally the screen’s fault. GPS hooked into the car’s screen makes sense. It’s safer than looking down at the cupholder or blocking off a bit of vision for a suction-cup phone holder on the windshield. However, typing on one is usually a nightmare because the positioning is awkward, right in the middle of the dash, even if the screen is top-of-the-line responsive. Syncing to a phone to use the GPS there, and then BlueTooth it to the screen fixes that problem but creates new problems in it’s wake. Even worse if these things are in separate menus, which means spending time navigating said menu to get to the GPS, Bluetooth hookup, or other assorted features in the first place. All of that should take place before driving – but isn’t it annoying to have to fix all of that up before even leaving? Flipping through the radio was effortless before screens made it more difficult than it needed to be.

Deeply Unnecessary and Largely Unwanted

Bizarrely, automakers also offer options to connect to the internet for reasons beyond simple GPS or music. As The Turning Signal points out, the layers upon layers of menus and features offer a lot of distraction while in the car, and no hierarchy of features. Radio should probably be fewer steps to get to than GPS, for example, because you’re not going to use GPS on every trip you make, but radio is almost always on. Another obvious downside is that if anything goes wrong with the screen itself, you’re trapped with the settings you had when it broke, and that’s really annoying.

Part of this isn’t even due to the screens – it’s because the automaker is desperate to stuff as many features as possible into the car. The sheer number of things a car can do now means even if everything were analog, the user would still be glancing down pretty often just to find the right button for the task. Seat warmers, directional AC, GPS, motorized seats, built in chair massagers??, the heater, turbo heating or cooling, the radio, Bluetooth, etc. etc. would all need their own buttons – multiple buttons for each. If automakers were to make these all real, physical buttons, your dashboard would look like something from Star Wars. It’s too late to go back unless the automaker wants to ditch features that other cars (and their previous cars) still have.

Even Worse

Ford announced plans to beam billboard information directly onto the screen, via a complicated system of computers and AI. While it’s not literally beaming every sign it sees into the car, and it is theoretically possible to shut off, it’s still an awfully ugly statement. The dashboard has become advertising space for billboards that used to be ignorable. A big question will be how it interacts with other apps on-screen. Does it get priority over the radio, or the GPS? Even assuming that’s all sorted, and the customer willingly has the ads open, glancing down to peep at a flash on-screen is a little bit dangerous, is it not? Their reasoning is that the consumer may have missed information they could be interested in. If the information is interesting, that’s worse! That makes the distraction issue worse! The screens are already horribly distracting as they are, with all of the menus and buttons and stuff to dig around in, so having an ad, which is inherently trying to snatch your attention away from what you were doing before you saw it, beamed directly into the car while the driver is driving, is effectively putting revenue above safety. I thought Ford had learned from the Pinto. Apparently not.

Many people jumped on Ford for even suggesting the option. As they should – billboards themselves have gotten into trouble for being too distracting, how beaming directly into the car was supposed to avoid those same issues is anybody’s guess.  

And then there’s things like games and social media apps built into the system. It’s weird anyway, because most people have phones, but whatever. Assuming it has the most basic of safety features built in, and won’t activate if the car is in drive – what’s to stop the driver from shifting into park at every red light to check up on their accounts?

Phones can at least be stuffed into pockets – this screen would have to be disabled.

Sources: https://www.motortrend.com/news/ford-billboard-ad-patent-system/