It’s an interesting time for car design: We’re not quite ready for the future, but we’ve outgrown our past.
In this adolescent stage of automobile development, vehicles must straddle the line between fully autonomous and manual machines. But much like growing up in real life, the intermediary phase is pockmarked by awkward periods, wrought from inconsistent growth spurts and experiments in identity.
In new-age autos, this can often mean drivers are deluged with infotainment options, despite the fact that it’s not yet safe for them to take their eyes—or minds—off the road. While future cars will assume more driving responsibility, allowing occupants to fiddle endlessly with a vehicle’s myriad apps and controls, today’s models invite those same diversions without sufficient robo-car backup.
A recent study conducted by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the University of Utah attempted to find just how much impact this incongruence has on the driving experience.
Using a batch of 30 cars, all model year 2017, analysts asked drivers to perform a number of “infotainment” tasks—such as making a call, sending a text, tuning the radio, and programming navigation—through touch-screens, voice command, and other interactive technologies—all while manning a moving vehicle.
Drivers were timed, and their visual and cognitive distraction were examined while they performed the task. All told, 12 of the cars ranked “very high” in terms of how much of a driver’s attention they demanded. (Eleven were found to have “high” demand, while none of the vehicles ranked as “low” demand.)
Below are the most distracting vehicles in the study, and why they were found to be so troublesome.
Audi Q7 QPP
The “Premium Plus” version of the Q7 includes infotainment options ranging from Android- and Apple-related plug-ins to text messaging and navigation, but drivers struggled to find their way through those choices.
The location of infotainment system controls in the center console drew drivers’ eyes and minds off the road for longer periods of time, the study said. And once inside the system, the organization of the apps and menus confused respondents.
While AAA praised the model for allowing drivers to keep their eyes on the road while placing phone calls, adjusting audio levels, and setting navigation, the study mentioned that phone-calling functions aren’t locked out while the vehicle is in motion, which could lead to more distraction behind the wheel.
Chrysler’s 300C comes with all the bells and whistles—and paying attention to them all was time-consuming for participants.
Drivers averaged 43 seconds to send a text message through voice command while driving the car. (Glancing away from the road for just 5 seconds while driving 55 MPH is enough to travel the length of a football field—blind.) The study reports drivers were both visually and mentally distracted when using the app.
Respondents had a lot of trouble using the car’s touchscreen and navigating its menus, while the study reports that looking for turn-by-turn directions was highly demanding.
Still, the car earned high marks for its voice command system overall, and for the fact that it prohibits touchscreen access to text messages while the car is in motion.
Dodge Durango GT
The 2017 GT model of the car comes with mobile app support, text messaging, touchscreen controls, and voice commands, and focus was highly compromised by nearly all of those systems.
The study found that while those behind the wheel could perform quickly when making a phone call, sending a text, picking a radio station, or setting a route, each of those tasks required a high amount of visual demand, keeping the driver’s eyes off the road more frequently.
AAA called the car’s navigation menu “complex” and “confusing,” saying it created high visual demand while drivers used the phonebook app. They praised the vehicle’s voice command system overall as being fast and accurate.
Ford Mustang GT
The 2017 GT model offers a whole suite of infotainment options, which took drivers extended periods of time to get through.
Sending a text message in the vehicle was especially demanding visually, with drivers taking an average of 34 seconds to complete the task, the study found. Confusing navigation menus also led to prolonged periods of eyes off the road, with drivers taking an average of 55 seconds to search for points of interest on the app.
The center console placement of the infotainment control system contributed to the problem, the study said. It also mentioned that the car keeps the dial pad and full phonebook accessible on the touch-screen while the vehicle is in motion.
Still, Ford’s voice command system received high marks for its ability to recognize natural speech and its on-screen assistance options.
GMC Yukon SLT
The GMC truck offers all manner of options for drivers, including plug-ins for Apple and Android, text messaging, navigation, and mobile app support offered through voice command and touch-screen.
The system was deemed a “very high demand” on drivers’ attention due to the lengthy performance time for sending text messages and setting navigation. Drivers, on average, took 30 seconds to send a text, sustaining high cognitive and visual demand throughout, while interactions with the navigation system took an average of 61 seconds to complete.
The car’s voice system fared far better, as respondents found it intuitive and flexible. AAA applauded the vehicle for restricting some touch-screen features while the car is moving.
Honda Civic Touring
Drivers of Honda’s 2017 Touring model encountered numerous issues while interfacing with its infotainment features.
The vehicle’s voice system was found especially problematic, as it frequently misunderstood commands and processed them slowly, the study found. The car’s navigation system also demanded outsized mental focus, as it’s designed differently from other apps in the vehicle and runs off a different set of verbal commands.
The study’s authors recommended not only making that system congruent with other infotainment controls in the car, but said the auto would benefit from faster processing time for both voice and touchscreen commands.
Honda Ridgeline RTL-E
The 2017 RTL-E demanded high amounts of focus to use nearly its entire suite of apps and infotainment options—whether attempting to complete tasks with touchscreen or voice command.
High cognitive functions were needed to access nearly every infotainment function in the vehicle—from making phone calls to setting navigation to adjusting audio—and doing so while using voice command was especially problematic, as the system took more than the recommended maximum of 24 seconds to complete a request, the study said. Using the touchscreen, on the other hand, took drivers’ eyes off the road for long stretches.
Still, the study mentioned, while the car is moving, some navigation features are restricted to voice command and texts are blocked from displaying on screen to reduce visual demand.
Mazda 3 Touring
The Mazda 3 Touring model took up drivers’ cognitive and visual attentions with a confusing center console control center and complex menu structure, according to the study.
Aside from being buggy—and abruptly stopping interaction with drivers on several occasions during the study—the vehicle’s voice command system was found to be highly visually and cognitively demanding when those behind the wheel were asked to send a text or place a phone call. Reaching for the center console in order to adjust audio settings also kept drivers mentally and visually engaged for prolonged periods of time.
Though, while its placement made it more distracting, the touchscreen locked out completely at speeds over 5 MPH, which the study designated a beneficial feature of the system.
Nissan Armada SV
While the 2017 Armada offers few major infotainment features, it hasn’t mastered them all—with the car’s complex navigation system generating so much cognitive and visual distraction that it brought down the vehicle’s overall rating.
Whether via voice command or touchscreen—which was placed in the more visually-demanding location of the center console—drivers’ mental and visual focus were highly compromised when using the navigation system, the study said.
Eyes were also taken off the road for an average of 27 seconds when using voice command to call contacts, and gazes lingered on the center console for extended periods of time when tuning the radio, as the car uses small audio buttons that are spread out across the area.
But the vehicle’s audio and entertainment controls produced moderate demand on drivers, while its multifunction dial improved audio and touchscreen menu navigation.
Those behind the wheel of the Crosstrek’s 2.0i Premium version have access to mobile app support, touchscreen menus, and voice command, but still struggled with completing several tasks.
Adjusting audio options and making phone calls from on the road proved particularly demanding on drivers, who found the system counterintuitive and time-consuming, especially while using voice command, which the study said was slow and misinterpreted drivers frequently.
Visually, the touchscreen created high demand while drivers placed phone calls, and the entertainment system’s multifunctional buttons confused some drivers, absorbing mental and optical focus.
Still, the touchscreen menus used large buttons that drivers could see and select easily—provided the car wasn’t moving. The auto received high marks for locking out the touchscreen dial pad while the vehicle is in motion.
Tesla Model S
The overall infotainment system in the 2017 Model S—which includes features such as mobile app support, navigation, and text messaging, conveyed via voice command or touchscreen—was found very highly distracting by the study’s participants.
Drivers ran into difficulties when placing phone calls, adjusting the audio system, or setting navigational routes, with voice command, in particular, taking longer than recommended to complete such tasks, the study said.
The Model S was also unique in allowing drivers to search the Internet while the car is in motion—producing outsized visual and cognitive demand. Its displays were also found visually problematic, with the vehicle’s touchscreen audio menu and Internet radio submenus especially difficult for drivers to search through competently.
Volvo XC60 T5 Inscription
The XC60 T5 offers numerous options for drivers to utilize mobile app support, text messaging, and navigation, among other features, but had usability problems in several areas, causing drivers to think more and longer about how to access the features.
Making a phone call, sending a text, or setting a destination were especially demanding on participants, as the systems were confusing and unintuitive, the study said. Drivers’ visual and mental focus were pulled away from the road due to a cluttered and expansive navigation menu on the center console. Using the voice command system was also difficult, as the program struggled to accurately interpret drivers, leading to prolonged periods of cognitive distraction.
Still, audio selections were able to be made quickly on the center console, and the vehicle prevents drivers from sending or replying to text messages while it’s in motion, in order to cut down on distractions.