/ Motoring

Are touchscreens a backward step for car safety?

Manufacturers are pouring billions into advanced driver-assistance systems and cars are safer than they’ve ever been. But could heavy reliance on touchscreens put drivers at risk?

If you’ve been perusing new car showrooms over the past couple of years (easier said than done, granted), you won’t have failed to notice a shift towards digital interior displays – configurable TFT screens in place of conventional dials, and in particular, touchscreen control systems replacing the conventional bank of buttons and switches adorning the center console.

Carmakers with models across the price spectrum are increasingly leaning towards button-less interiors, with a large smart-phone style interface a better way of presenting the enormity of media, driver assistance and online tech on offer, keeping drivers safer and better connected than ever before.

The sheer abundance of driver assistance tech available is perhaps why we’re ignoring the rather large elephant in the room: touchscreen media systems are unacceptably distracting to drivers operating them on the move.

Distractingly large screens

Just as drivers are facing ever-greater scrutiny for how they use their mobile phones behind the wheel, they are being presented with an even larger screen, often placed some reach from their driving position, that controls nearly all of their car’s ancillary functions.

It’s not so bad with a high-quality system, which is responsive to the touch and has haptic feedback (emitting small vibrations when you tap a button). At the other end of the scale, a sluggish, unresponsive screen can be a real liability on the road.

Spending some time with them does help – owners will eventually get used to an operating system’s particular foibles. But time and time again, Which? car testers find they have to pull over to safely adjust simple functions such as temperature or heated seats – even with the simplest of touchscreen menus, you have to take your eyes of the road and accurately prod a screen that’s moving about as the car jostles over bumps.

Phasing out physical controls

Even BMW, whose innovative i-Drive controller has long been regarded as amongst the best and most intuitive control interfaces, is turning its back on physical controls. Its reasoning is that once drivers have set up the car to their liking, there’s little need to delve into the touchscreen system on the move, particularly given advancements in its latest voice-control systems.

As slick and prompt as it is to respond to spoken commands, we can’t help but feel the lack of i-Drive dial, for instance in the latest 2 Series Active Tourer, is a regrettable omission.

Is your car’s media system operated by touchscreen? Let us know below whether you find it helpful or a hindrance, and whether you’d like to see further investigation on how distracting they really are.

How do you feel about touchscreen car controls?
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I have a BMW with the i-Drive dial and central display screen. The only touch feature I have found is to navigate the map. The sensible way to set any features, such as a new journey, is when you are not in motion. I have not used a touch-screen in a car so have no experience but assume looking at a central screen and fiddling with it is going to distract from watching the road. Rather like using a hand-held mobile phone. I would expect it to be an offence if found to use it while driving.

A feature I found invaluable is the head-up display where key information is presented as an image in the lower windscreen in front of the driver, so can be read without distracting from the road ahead. It should be a standard on all cars, in my view.

The problem–as you’ve correctly identified, Daljinder–is not the touch screen per se but the quality of the touchscreen response. In the headlong rush towards building the snazziest and jazziest car, I suspect driving the thing is being somewhat overlooked.

Ivor says:
7 March 2022

I think many of us are more comfortable with physical controls because we have not embraced all the technology that exists in modern cars. Eg. I own a Volvo XC40 and you have to use its large central screen for everything. I found changing temperature a real issue as you had to press in a very specific and small part of the screen. I also found that changing media or radio channels was very distracting. To overcome these issues I used the voice controls more. Until now this was something I had really dismissed. How many of us are really familiar with all the technology available to the driver that makes their lives easier and avoids having to use these displays all of the time?

I must admit when I have been a passenger in a car with such advanced ambience enhancing features as heated seats, etc, I have been somewhat concerned when the driver reaches out to fiddle with the touch screen and obviously momentarily takes their eyes off the road ahead. Of course, a good driver picks their moment and doesn’t do it on a roundabout, near the brow of a hill, approaching a bend in the road, when children are around, when overtaking, while making a manoeuvre, when waiting at traffic signals, or anywhere else for that matter, while supposed to be in control of the vehicle.

I am wondering whether the transition to electric motoring will put a stop to such luxurious accessories and over-specified motor cars. The carbon footprint of making and fitting inessential features must be considerable; can it be justified in a sustainable future? Is this the motor industry’s last gasp of planned obsolescence and competitive refinement before it all collapses around them?

I suspect that electric cars will continue along the same path, John.
“What’s more, the EQE will feature Mercedes’ new ‘MBUX Hyperscreen’, which sees the entire dashboard turned into a touch-sensitive display.
and Toyota Aygo X
“Prices start at £14,795 for entry-level ‘Pure’ trim. For that you’ll get a decent specification, including alloy wheels, touchscreen media system with Apple Carplay/Android Auto,

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2022/01/revealed-the-five-new-cars-to-watch-out-for-in-2022/ – Which?

I agree Malcolm, and I am sure there will be very little consumer resistance to such ‘advancements’ [as Which? calls them in the Intro!]. Car buyers will presumably have virtually no alternative choice of a basic [but perfectly safe] car with minimal superfluous attributes. An electric 2CV for the 21st century is what is needed. Or, even better, a battery-powered Trabant [4 PP9’s should suffice!].

This seems pretty basic.

I agree. Touch screens can be dangerous to use on the move and simple adjustments are made more difficult both by the central position of the screen and by the need to prod it accurately. As such my seats remain unheated since I can not turn them off easily, the music is left to play because it takes too long to look at the menus and change it. I am glad that the basic driving controls are manual. Voice control on my car is hit and miss and I haven’t explored it fully. It is almost impossible to play with the touch screen and keep driving in a straight line, so, like you testers, it remains unused except when stationary. The frustration of trying to make things happen on the move is distracting from driving even on an empty road. (Prolonged attempts result in the car telling me I’m tired and need to take a break!) As a display the screen is excellent and that’s what it should be used for. My first touch screen on a Jaguar circa 2000 failed and pretty much all the car functions failed with it. I was quoted £2000 to repair it and I sold the car.

Whether touchscreens are a danger will depend on the extent to which the functions are disabled when the vehicle is moving. I cannot get excited about technology in cars, with the notable exceptions of sat navs and parking sensors.

Em says:
7 March 2022

Satellite navigation has almost certainly increased car safety, provided the destination is input before the journey starts, or by a passenger. Before Covid-19 put a stop to such risky passtimes, I successfully navigated the Paris Peripherique (ring road) twice and lived to tell the tale. I wonder just how many drivers have crashed their cars trying to read a paper map on the move, or have made a sudden lane change when indicated by poor road signage.

The particular Sat Nav in question was integrated into a Toyota RAV4 and it was rather annoying that a passenger could not input the next destination when the vehicle was moving, particularly as it had few other functions.

My latest EV has an overwhelming menu of different options to play with on the move. Android Auto and Alexa integration are also included, so it will be a big problem for undisciplined drivers. Of course, touch screens are a potential distraction, but so are noisy kids, pets, eating, drinking, chatty passengers and mobile phones, even if mounted. A responsible driver knowns these have to be filtered out to stay safe.

I’m sure Which? knows that car safety isn’t black or white; it depends on a range of sensible, incremental improvements, some of which are being facilitated through a touch screen display.

Nigel Lorriman says:
9 March 2022

The safest solution would be to prevent touchscreen interaction while a vehicle is in motion. Sat Nav and phonecalls have been possible via voice control for years. It should be possible for climate, heated seats and radio, all of which have been moved to the omnipresent touchscreen in many cars, to also be controlled by voice.

Anon says:
10 March 2022

They’re bad enough in normal cars, but would you believe even police forces are moving towards touchscreen controls for radio, sirens, light systems, etc.? Its unbelievably dangerous if you’re single crewed, concentrating on driving emergency response, and then have to navigate a touchscreen to control the car’s various tools. Awful. Physical controls should be the norm in all cars, otherwise what’s the point in all this legislating against use of phones, etc.? Defeats the purpose!

Ian Garratt says:
16 March 2022

Absolutely. Touch screens are at least as dangerous as mobile phones and should be disabled as soon as a car is in motion. The idrive on BMWs is far superior and could be an industry benchmark.

I should be interested to know the degree to which the use of single-crewing in police cars involved in high-speed pursuit and interception and in intensive crime-busting action has been subject to proper risk assessment.

I know that the officers involved have undergone extensive and detailed training but the technology now employed in the high performance vehicles has taken the police station out into the rolling crime scene.

As well as a personal radio, mobile phone and camera attached to each officer, the car has an on-board computer, radio telephone, automatic number plate reader, dashcam, video screen, and other apparatus that can be used while in motion. Given the distraction of incoming messages from control, the wailing of sirens, flashing of beacons, and other disturbances, it is asking a lot of a solo driver to maintain proper control of the car in a fast-moving action. I think the driver should be left to drive while another officer operates all the systems.

The point of legislation against use of phones this that they have nothing to do with controlling a car.

Vera Grant says:
14 March 2022

I’ve just bought a car with a large touchscreen. Visually, for reversing for example, it’s a great improvement over my older smaller monochrome display. However, the fiddling required to change a radio station, adjust the radio volume etc is just too distracting. It’s reasonable to expect someone to programme a satnav before they start their journey, but actioning it as you approach the unknown area is another matter and stopping places may not be available. Maybe we should try to reach agreement between manufacturers similar to them agreeing to have the all the pedals in the same position and the manual gears following the same model (except of course for reverse gear!!)?

At least in the UK, where most people are right-handed, the touch-screen and gear lever are on the left and we can keep our right hands on the steering wheel.

We have an older generation (2012) Nissan X-Trail which has a central touchscreen AND numerous buttons and knobs below. The main uses are for the Radio and the Satnav. The Satnav itself is not great, but its controls are superb.
We set up the Satnav before moving off, but as I like North Up and my wife likes Heading Up, we often forget to change that over. That requires touching a virtual button always visible on the screen.
Other changes that can be needed when mobile are zooming in or out to check where we are (this is done with a big circular knob below the screen that I could use blindfolded), switching between Day and Night settings (a push of a physical button to override the “headlights on” assumption that it is night – because that may be on just because it is raining) and switching to retune the radio station when travelling out of area (again a simple push button).
Zooming the Satnav is really helpful when navigating around town or along narrow country lanes versus travelling at speed on main roads and motorways across country.
Headlights activating Night mode during the day can make the screen virtually invisible.

We also have a Renault Kadjar. Renault arguable have had one of the best set of radio controls on any car for years (most on a dedicated joystick), which is fortunate because using the central screen for that or the Satnav is a nightmare. You have to swipe across, tap through nested menus and numerous virtual buttons to achieve anything. Consequently, we cannot zoom the satnav, nor change night to day on the move.
I therefore believe in knobs and switches for frequently needed controls and a properly thought through ergonomic set up for these screens. All-touch screens are indeed a retrograde step in terms of user convenience AND Safety.

The problem is that you need to look at the screen in order for it to do what you want, many functions should be on physical switches so that you keep your eyes on the road. Touchscreens are a lazy design engineers solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

I have useful switches on the steering wheel which, together with head up display, are safe and convenient.

Airbus was one of the first companies to introduce Fly-By-Wire controls on the A320 series of aircraft. It has one of the lowest accident rates of any aircraft flying today. And that is according to statistics, published by Boeing in 2021, their main competitor. Is that safety record also the work of “a lazy design engineers [sic] solution to a problem that didn’t exist”?

In my view touchscreen controls are as dangerously distracting as mobile phone use, i.e., much worse than being on the drink-drive limit. In my older car I can adjust all the button/dial manual heating and ventilation controls by touch (irony) without needing to look. On my newer car these are all done through a multi-function ‘touch’ screen with no physical references of where your finger is so you have to look. Tech for tech’s sake.

It’s a bit silly having this conversation in isolation of other car technologies and interfaces.

I have already “touched” on a major safety improvement that would be almost impossible to implement without a touch screen interface, namely Sat Nav.

The second innovation is voice-activated controls. The first few iterations of these were pretty dire, either having to train the system to recognise your voice, or having to learn a very limited list of commands, or both.

My new EV has a PIVI Pro system that actually works as I might expect. “Tune to Classic FM”, “Go to Gatwick Airport”, “Zoom out”, etc. You only need to glance at the large touch screen occasionally to ensure it is following orders. No need to take any hands off the steering wheel.

Through this conversation, I’m realising just how dangerous it is to use a touch screen to control heating, ventilation, heated seats and the radio. But it would seem that physical knobs and buttons are OK for some reason, other than familiarity?

If safety is paramount, there should be NO driver controls of any form for these unnecessary accessories. Heaters and air conditioning should be thermostatically controlled and preset to a comfortable temperature when stationary. And nobody needs to listen to a radio.

In my last car the screen was simply a screen and it displayed useful information at a glance. The physical knobs and switches were controllable without taking eyes from the road. One knew where they were and what they did. They were positioned to be within easy reach, if not actually on the steering wheel itself. I could safely operate the radio and my i pod without danger to me or others. My current touch screen is not intuitive, and Em is right to say that it shouldn’t be used on the move. I do have to control the battery with a swipe and a prod of the screen on the move, but, fortunately that is swift and just two quick actions of hands from the wheel. Trying to operate the voice activation is also distracting, while one is thinking what to say and how to correct the system when it often mis-hears instructions. A switch or knob has just one function and a press or two does the job without fuss. Naturally, anyone sensible will take note of the road conditions before taking attention from them, but this means, in my current car, delaying many actions for some time after thinking about doing them. A whim to heat a seat is fraught because the whim to turn it off is complex afterwards,- especially when the icon is small and one is likely to turn something else on as turn the heat off.
I do like music in the car, and, again, in the past selecting it was easy and not distracting. Today, the sub menus on the touch screen make it impossible to deal with this on the move. I either put up with what is playing, or turn the thing off -with a push of a button!

I don’t normally need to interact with my satnav. I set it for a destination before driving and, from then on, all the information I need is displayed directly in front of me in the windscreen in the head-up display – distance to next junction and direction to take, and on major roads a picture of the signage and the lane to drive in when changing direction for example – plus audible instructions.

Watching and interacting with a map on a central screen seems such a distraction as to be unsafe, but I have no experience of such a device.

Let us face it, Satnavs are one of the most useful driving aids out there. Think back to what you did before ? Unless you we’re travelling with a suitable passenger, was it a pre-written list of road names, major turns and en-route town names and/or a map or road atlas sat open on the front passenger seat. Tell me you didn’t ever take your eyes off the road ahead to check one of those?
If you have pre-programmed your radio so that button 4 was Radio 4 (etc), you still have to look across to press that button and not one for another station, your CD/iPod/phone, or the hazard flashers!
If you need to de-mist the screen, you have to locate that knob or slider by eye first.
You are also not looking ahead, if you are checking your mirrors.
The fact is we do not just look at the road ahead when driving and never have. However, that clearly why we need to minimise the number and duration of such events. So far, knobs and buttons do that better than touch screens (at least, if well designed). It is also why tailgating and speeding is so dangerous (but are safe separations ever enforced by the Police?).
I would add that a reversing camera is pretty high up on my list of modern driving aids as well – and they only exist because they use the same screen as the Satnav.
The problem is, that every Satnav can sometimes give you the wrong verbal instruction. I have literally been told to turn right, when I had to turn left, not told to turn until actually at the junction or exit and sometimes not told to turn at all. I don’t know how they are programmed in the first place, but they often say “bear right” instead of “turn right” (or vice versa), get confused at gyratory systems, occasionally tell you the wrong roundabout exit number and often fail to mention some junctions at all. My council keeps changing roundabouts to traffic lights (which confuses strangers as well as Satnavs) and most people’s Satnav maps are rarely up to date (shouldn’t that be part of an annual service?).
Consequently, you often need to look at the detail Satnav map to be sure of what turning to make and when to make it – particularly in complex urban areas or complex junction layouts. On long motorway journeys, they may say nothing at all for some hours, so you need to zoom out for an over-view to see how you are progressing or if contemplating a service stop. Then what happens if there are accidents, roadworks, diversions and/or other traffic delays?
There are several fans of Waze in my family.
You may conclude that they are more of a problem, than they are worth, but I repeat, in all these cases, what would you have done before?

Phil says:
20 March 2022

Built-in satnavs using the screen in centre of the dashboard involve moving the eyes a long way and re-focusing. My ‘after market’ one is stuck to the bottom corner of the windscreen so I don’t have to shift my eyes far to refer it.

It still thinks I live on the opposite side of the road though and mispronounces in strange and interesting ways, Beecester fo Bicester for example.

I agree, Phil. My inexpensive Garmin sat nav is attached to the windscreen and compared with looking at the mirrors I don’t have to divert my eyes far. I can take it into the house and enter the various places that I plan to visit – four the last time I used the car. Try doing that with a built-in sat nav.