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Touch Screens Are Distracting Drivers. What Are Carmakers Doing To Help?


In this week's All Tech Considered, we look at technology in cars.


SIEGEL: Many new cars come with backup cameras, blind spot detectors and automatic braking, technology that makes driving safer. But there are also touch screens that let us program navigation, listen to our favorite podcasts and send text messages. And that is pretty distracting, as a new study from AAA underscores. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Let's all admit it. You would be lost without your smartphone - literally. My voice is probably coming out of one right now. They rule our lives. Dan McGehee knows it all too well. He studies driver distraction at the University of Iowa.

DAN MCGEHEE: And the context doesn't really matter. So whether we are in the car, we're merging onto a freeway, we're still looking at our phones no matter the context. It's a very compelling device.

GLINTON: McGehee says car companies are trying to get us to put down our phones. They use flat screens, he says, in part because they're so close to the smartphones and tablets we love so much. But touch screens in cars go back to about 1988.

MCGEHEE: So we're pushing 30 years in the market with touch screens. Over time, we've migrated to that kind of interface because it's cheaper to put in a touch screen than it is to put hard buttons that are more reliable.

GLINTON: McGehee says the problem with touch screens is unlike radio presets or your AC button, your brain can't automatically map to them. The third time you drive your Aunt Murlene's Cadillac, you know where the volume button is and that the preset number one is smooth jazz. But with a touch screen, you always have to look down.

MCGEHEE: So we have to actually look at the button. We have to find it as a target with our finger and watch our finger literally physically touch that button and then verify that we've executed the volume. It takes a lot more attention to do that than it does to just grab a volume knob.

GLINTON: The mighty struggle, McGehee says, for car companies is to get you to put your phone down. It's a battle, though, he says they just have to fight.

MCGEHEE: The threat is always that we're going to be digging that phone out of our pocket to make that much more complicated move onto a keyboard that is really tiny, a screen that is much smaller. And so that's why some of these voice systems have been one alternative.

JAKE FISHER: When it comes to something like voice commands, when you look at a smartphone, they are so good now. And the car companies - they're just years behind.

GLINTON: Jake Fisher is director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.

FISHER: The problem is that if you're a car company, you don't have that background that maybe that smartphone manufacturers had.

GLINTON: Consumer Reports rated the various voice command systems in cars. And essentially, the highest a car company got was OK. That's because car design is measured in years, and phone design is measured in months.

FISHER: We're in a 2017 world of technology, and these systems may have been designed in 2008. And that's a big problem because as we all know, if you had a smartphone from 2008, I mean, it's a doorstop at this point.

GLINTON: Fisher says it's a hard lesson car designers around the world have to admit. They're not experts at this.

FISHER: I think what the car manufacturers have to do is maybe wave the white flag a little bit and realize that they're not the expert in terms of this technology. There are experts out there, and they know how to do this stuff maybe a little bit better than, say, a department that has been designing FM radios for the last 30 years.

GLINTON: The bottom line is that flat screens in your car can be distracting. Set your destination. Pick your channel, and then start driving. And whatever you do, put your phone down. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINOTAUR SHOCK'S "MY BURR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.