/ Motoring, Technology

In-car technology is starting to get way too distracting

Despite most car buyers going for technological extras, such as in-built entertainment and navigation systems, our latest investigation found that the majority of drivers find these features distracting.

We tested eight different ‘infotainment systems’ from some of the biggest selling carmakers in the UK. Each system was different, from the features onboard to the controls – be it touchscreen, click-wheel (single control dial with a multitude of functions) or an array of buttons on the dashboard.

Our tests were focused solely on the ease-of-use of these systems, both when stationary and when driving.

While the best-rated systems were those fitted in premium-badged brands, like BMW and Mercedes, our dedicated team of testers were overwhelmed by the depth and varying control functions for all of the entertainment, navigation, climate and communication features.

Eyes on the road

We’ve previously had a good moan about modern cars being too technologically advanced for their own good here on Which? Conversation, but our research did find that the above features are what drivers want most.

But are we wise to want them in our cars? We surveyed 1,011 Which? members, finding 241 who already have a car with one of these more advanced infotainment systems. Of these, seven in ten admitted to finding them distracting.

That’s why we’ve developed our own 10-point best practice charter for in-car tech. In the coming months we’ll be presenting this to road safety groups, government bodies and car manufacturers in an attempt to get them to agree to the production of less distracting in-car tech.

Our checklist ranges from advice like ‘drivers shouldn’t need to look away from the road for more than two seconds to operate any single function’, to ‘entering sat nav destinations should be disabled when moving.

So, which in-car tech features do you think are most distracting? And do we need to counter this obsession for complicated infotainment systems in cars?


I believe that the biggest danger is use of phones in cars. I don’t see that hands-free phones overcome the problem and I have had to take action to avoid my car being hit by distracted motorists that were either using hands-free phones or talking to themselves.

The links to “More on this …” seem to be broken in the Which? lead article.

… and “in car features” in the Conversation above.

Should be working now, thanks Em.

Most distracting – Mini – speedo in the centre of the dashboard, is even more difficult to understand when a sat-nav is in the middle of it.

It does get easier once you get to know the car, having a bluetooth interface for music and calls is vital in my opinion.

The worst, for all cars, beyond any shadow of doubt though is Cruise Control. For many many reasons that I have explained before, should be outlawed.

MartynA says:
19 April 2012

As a mini owner – I’m with you on that one – a bad case of ‘form over function’ – but you do have the option of the digital read our in the rev counter.

Deep down, I can’t help but feel that most in-car technology should be discouraged. However, as that isn’t really an option, I encourage any moves towards making interaction with in-car tech easier.

For example, use a sat nav by all means, but make sure it’s mounted on the screen in your eye-line and not blocking your view. Use an MP3 player but set up your playlist before you set off and don’t touch it again. It’s all too tempting to reach over and reply to a text when you’re sat in traffic, but considering the very real dangers it poses, I welcome any laws that make smoking/talking on a phone at the wheel illegal.

Aceparts_com says:
16 April 2012

Anything that takes your eyes from the road is a distraction. Things that take your eyes from the road and shuts down vital brain function whilst driving should be removed from the vehicle entirely. With so much research into how we respond whilst driving and driving whilst distracted, it’s hard to believe that phones (one of the worst offenders) can still be used in a vehicle, whether its hands free or not. Research has proven that vital parts of that brain used for concentration shuts down whilst speaking on the phone (not the same as talking in person). So why haven’t manufacturers invented a device that simply puts your phone into “flight mode” when in the car? No incoming or outgoing calls. Simple as that. Emergency calls will be exactly that, for emergencies, not “can you put my microwave meal on in 10 minutes”!

Sue says:
20 April 2012

It’s simple, do what I do and switch the mobile off when driving, there’s no danger of being distracted then!

I will have to totally agree with you. The use of a phone in a car, hand free or not, is a big distraction. The drivers mind is on their conversation, not on their driving. In Canada, studies have shown that a driver on a cell phone has a better chance of getting into an accident than an intoxicated driver. Now manufacturers are putting more and more electronic garbage into cars, such as touch screen infotainment systems, and in some cases, the touch screen is also used for climate control. Another distraction to cause the driver to take their eyes off of the road.

I got into the habit of turning my cell phone off over a decade ago. I worked as a highway patrolman for years, with a police 2 way radio going constantly and even while using it, it was no where near as distracting as trying to use a cell phone while driving. If someone tells you that they’re not distracted while driving and using a cell phone, don’t believe them.

I am still trying to understand why people text whilst driving….this is murderous, suicidal mania. Anyone caught doing this should be treated the same as a drunk driver!

Most other in car devices can now be operated via the steering wheel, so can be used without taking eyes off the road.

The most distracting is the SatNav, this should be designed so when the car is in motion the screen blanks out and it is voice command only, so if you wish to check the map, pull over and stop the car.

I find glancing at my satnav very useful, particularly to be sure about which exit to take at roundabouts. The spoken information is not always clear.

I agree about the texters. They are probably doing it without thinking – and the same may apply to their driving. 🙂

I suppose the occasional glance is OK, but I have seen too many drivers concentrating far too much on this device, with the consequential lack of attention on the road.

Maybe a flash up button which give the screen a 3 sec illumination for the tricky bits such as you have described?

MartynA says:
19 April 2012

Pulling over simply isn’t an option these days so if you are on your own and on unfamiliar territory what is the option? Road junctions are also so complex these days and other drivers impatient. It beats trying to read a paper map or directions whilst on the move – so a sat nav map is the ‘least worse option’.

I agree – trying to text and drive should be viewed as even more serious than being on the phone without ‘hands free’.

I think a lot of distraction can be due to a poorly designed human-computer interface. I particularly dislike interfaces that have different behaviour depending on their state. For example, push one button to turn something on, push the same button again to turn it off. This means you need to know what state the device is in before you press the button in order to know what the button will do when you press it. This means you have to think about the device and stop concentrating on the road. Much better would be two buttons, or a two-position rotary switch.

I completely agree with you about human-computer interface, but what is wrong with one press to turn something on and another to turn it off? Do you really want twice as many buttons?

Ideally I would prefer a switch similar to those on mains sockets (or the digital/touchscreen equivalent), where you apply pressure at one point to turn on and pressure at another point to turn off, and you cannot apply pressure at both points simultaneously (or nothing happens if you do). The reason I don’t like a single button with multiple functions is that you need to know what state it’s in before you press it. It’s ok when it’s state is obvious, but that’s not always the case. For example, sometimes I want to turn on my digital set-top box before I turn on the TV. The box has such a single button. Usually, pressing it turns it on. But since the TV is not on, often I don’t realise that the set-top box is already on (there is no indication), so I unintentionally switch it off. This is frustrating because I then switch on the TV, realise I’ve just switched off the STB, and switch it on again, but have to wait several minutes for it to receive the electronic programme guide. If I had just left it alone, it would have been ready for use. The in-car equivalent to this could be the radio. It’s silent, so you press a button to turn it on… and nothing happens. After a minute of scratching your head with a puzzled look, you realise that you had in fact turned it off – the radio was previously on, but tuned to Radio 3 and there was a long silent pause between two classical pieces. (Ok, if you’re more of a Radio 1 person then the radio was on but the volume was on 0.)

Anyone driving a car with head up widow displays, how do these compare with the traditional gadgets?

It seems that anything causing you to stop looking at the road & mirrors can be detrimental to safe driving, we need to have tactical controls on the wheel with a few complicated actions as possible to operate them. Press button on, press button off, push lever forward to increase, pull lever back to decrease, simple and needing no concentration to operate.

Will google now develop driving goggles, or driving googles:-)
Hang on maybe I should copyright that name…..

Dr_zeus says:
22 April 2012

“flight mode” what a brilliant suggestion, you’re travelling with your family and you find yourself at the mercy of a lunatic road user who decides to scare the bejesus out of you for the next 20 miles Because you’re dead set against finding the time to understand how your technology works you set the thing up so that when its most needed you can’t flipping use it, even the passenger wouldn’t be able to use it!!!

Cruise control, how difficult is it to turn it on, set the speed with your right foot and press the set button, to disengage press either the brake or clutch pedal.

It’s been long established that regular tasks are by and large handled by the subconscious rather than conscious mind, so learn how to use your mind and work on keeping yourself alert, learn how the important parts of the technology work and become comfortable with it, if you’re a complete technophobe bear this mind when you test drive and choose your vehicle.

Stop advocating handing over every last bit of freedom you retain to the law makers because it’s beyond your wit to learn how to use a certain part of systems.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t approve of any distractions in the motor car – wireless, telephone, heater, electric windows, navigation instrument; all you have to do is tell the chauffeur when you need to turn right or something.

Hopefully your chauffeur will use the trafficators rather than winding down the window to give hand-signals in cold weather, John.