CarBuzz asked several brands this question. Here's what some had to say.
The auto industry entered the digitization era years ago with now-basic things like GPS navigation systems. Those early nav systems, especially aftermarket ones, were sometimes problematic as they weren't always up-to-date. Like all technologies, nav systems have dramatically improved. Today, automakers have forced us to rely on infotainment systems for many functions from climate control to radio stations.
But tech and design should supplement the driving experience, not dominate it. Modern infotainment systems have become so complex they can cause distracted driving. Until we reach Level 5 autonomy, uninterrupted driving is a vital skill. Today's drivers not only must drive but also control these systems. It can be a challenging balance.
CarBuzz reached out to several major automakers with a simple question: What are you doing to ensure drivers are not overly distracted by your infotainment systems? The answers we received had two common themes: 1- distracted driving is a reality and a problem, and 2- our systems take this into account.
"We see distracted driving as one of the highest impact impediments to overall occupant safety, and this ethic guides the design of our current and future infotainment systems," Kia told us. Its all-new 2023 Sportage, for example, comes with two large screens: a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and a 12.3-inch central infotainment display. The fact both are big, centralized in one rectangular piece, and are level with one another should make it easier for drivers to focus. We're also big fans of Kia's very easy-to-use interface.
Kia's sister brand, Hyundai, "is currently ranked #1 in J.D. Power Tech Experience Index among non-luxury brands," said Manish Mehrotra, executive director, Hyundai's digital business planning and connected operations. "Our goal is to extend our technology advantage and make our customers' lives easier inside and outside the vehicle. The key is understanding unmet customer needs and then providing excellence in execution with advanced technology solutions. Hyundai's Dynamic Voice Recognition is a great example of this execution."
We've sometimes criticized BMW's iDrive, specifically older versions, for being too complicated. This is concerning. The good news is that BMW has done a solid job refining and improving iDrive over the years.
"BMW has always been at the forefront of bringing the best technologies to market in our vehicles, which of course include infotainment technology," a spokesperson told CarBuzz. "We have always been very mindful of the dangers related to driver distractions and believe that technologies such as heads-up display, voice-control, and iDrive help decrease diver distraction by reducing, or even in some cases, eliminating the amount of time that drivers take their eyes off of the road."
We like having the choice of using the rotary dial, voice control, or tapping the touchscreen itself to navigate the system. BMW's voice control we've found works very nicely and often eliminated the need to take our right hand away from the steering wheel to adjust some function. Voice control systems, in general, are constantly improving their accuracy and importantly, BMW retains physical climate controls.
Without question, Stellantis' Uconnect is one of the best infotainment systems. It's extremely easy to use with little to no learning curve. But still, no system is perfect and Stellantis is aware of this.
"Safety is paramount in every Stellantis product, including in the integration of new, more connected technologies," a spokesperson explained. "How we undertake this is a multi-faceted approach. For example, today our industry-leading Uconnect 5 infotainment system features a customizable home screen, so controls the driver uses most frequently can be positioned for easy accessibility.
Other measures to keep a driver's attention on the road are as straightforward as restricting Bluetooth pairing while the vehicle is in motion. In the case of Wagoneer and Jeep Grand Cherokee, a specialized filter is applied to their segment-first front passenger screens, so it's not viewable from the driver's seat."
Pictured below are the images Stellantis provided us for this article.
Some may recall that it was Honda who first eliminated the traditional volume knob when it launched the current generation Pilot for 2016. Instead, the volume control was integrated into the touchscreen. Consumer backlash was almost instant. To its credit, Honda listened and the analog knob returned.
"A touchscreen is a wonderful way to provide access to features on all modern cars. But a touchscreen in a moving vehicle is more challenging than an iPad on your lap," Honda said. "Trying to find access so that you don't have to find a switch for everything [is important]."
With the latest generation Civic, designers placed the touchscreen higher than before for improved visibility. They also lowered the dash and used thinner A-pillars for visibility. Additional praise must also be given to the soft-touch ledge at the bottom of the touchscreen that helps stabilize the driver's right hand while navigating the screen. "Safety first, then provide customers with the feature content they demand," a Honda spokesperson stressed. "As technology increases, Honda will adapt. Safety is always No. 1."
Unfortunately, not every automaker responded to our questions in time for publication. Those who did were genuinely concerned and fully aware of how easily drivers can get distracted by touchscreens. Advancements in navigating these systems, larger screens, and where they're situated on the dashboard all contribute to safety. But still, you shouldn't have to divert your eyes away from the road to adjust the temperature or blower speed. Voice control can be helpful but, at the end of the day, even that can be a distraction.
What ultimately needs to happen is for all automakers to focus on ergonomics over tech. Those we spoke to appear to understand this. But we'll feel awfully better when this way of thinking and design execution becomes the industry standard. Not all manufacturers build focused sports cars like the GMA T.50 devoid of infotainment screens, but so long as this tech will be used, it needs to be improved.