Most distracting car infotainment systems
We put 20 cars’ infotainment systems and air-con controls to the test to see how distracting they are for drivers to operate on the move...
The number of collisions caused by driver distraction is rising each year. It accounted for 15% of accidents in 2019, compared with 13% in 2016 and 14% in 2017, according to Department for Transport data. And when you focus on fatal collisions, distraction of some sort contributes to 25% of incidents.
Against this backdrop, the safety of in-car touchscreens has been questioned by safety campaigners, while Highways England has also raised concerns about the use of them. You operate them in a similar way to smartphones, yet nothing has been done to restrict the use of them while driving. By contrast, anyone caught using a handheld mobile can be fined at least £200 and get six penalty points for succumbing to this type of distraction.
So, should we be worried that many car makers have swapped traditional dashboard controls and infotainment systems with buttons for touchscreens over the past five years? While digital instrument panels can be a boon because they allow a wider range of information to be displayed directly in front of the driver, the same can’t be said for touchscreens, which are generally more fiddly and time-consuming to use on the move.
Even Audi, which has traditionally garnered praise for the ease of use of its infotainment systems, has ditched centre console-based rotary controllers for touchscreens in its latest models, and some also have a touchscreen for secondary functions such as the climate control. That said, its systems are still among the best, because they offer the driver a number of different ways of doing each command. You can manipulate the sat-nav map by pinching the touchscreen, or via a small dial on the steering wheel, and if you want to change radio stations on the move, you can request this using the voice control system. However, not all car makers give you a choice of ways to do various tasks, and it’s these cars that are potentially the biggest problem.
Read more: Least distracting infotainment systems
To find out just how distracted a driver can become while performing six common tasks, we filmed two people driving 20 different car models that encompass the majority of the different types of infotainment systems and dashboard layouts on offer. Our results only relate to the specific system tested, because more and less sophisticated systems are often available with different trim levels of the same model, or as optional extras.
We analysed the footage of our two drivers – both of whom were familiar with each system – doing each task to see how long each spent looking at dials or a touchscreen. The results of our research reveal that it can take more than twice as long to adjust the heater fan in a car with this function on a touchscreen rather than a dial or physical switch. It can also take more than four times as long to zoom out on a sat-nav map and eight times as long to scroll down a list of radio stations.
Meanwhile, using voice control to find the nearest fuel station – a task that should be far less distracting than using a touchscreen – can make drivers take their eyes off the road for more than 10 seconds if the system is slow to respond and requires them to go through lots of stages to complete the command.
When you consider that a car covers 13.5 metres per second at 30mph, in our worst case scenario of spending more than 42 seconds not looking at the road, the vehicle will have travelled the length of almost six football pitches in that time.
1. Turn up the temperature by 2deg.
2. Increase the fan speed by two settings.
3. With a 20-mile route programmed into the sat-nav and the infotainment screen on the home page, go to the map screen and zoom out to see the entire route.
4. Cancel route guidance.
5. With the radio tuned to Virgin Radio DAB and the infotainment screen on the home page, go to the main list of DAB stations and switch to BBC Radio 4.
6. Using the voice control button on the steering wheel (where fitted), ask the car to find the nearest service station.
The most distracting infotainment systems
1. MG ZS EV with 8.0in touchscreen
While the ZS finishes last, it’s not all bad news, with the air-con dials (for temperature and fan) being large and easy to operate.
Touching the screen easily gets you onto the sat-nav map page. However, three steps are needed to end guidance and the map isn’t accurate when you try to zoom out with your fingers. To make matters worse, the system is painfully slow to respond and crashes frequently, so you find yourself looking back at the screen repeatedly to make sure it has done what you’ve asked it to do.
Because the radio stations are in ensembles, you have to scroll to the correct group first and then search for your chosen station, although life is much easier once you’ve saved your favourites.
The ZS doesn’t have a voice recognition system, but you can activate a smartphone system via a steering wheel button.
2. Fiat 500X with 7.0in touchscreen and Uconnect Live
The 500X’s temperature and fan dials are big and simple, although it’s quite a stretch to reach them.
The touchscreen is also positioned quite a long way from the driver and the icons on it are small, so they’re not easy to read. And while you get an arrow icon that makes zooming fairly simple, the process is slow and you have to go through three steps to stop guidance. Nor is it obvious which button to press first. The radio stations are in alphabetical order, but the slow screen response makes it time-consuming to scroll through them.
It takes five steps to get voice control to navigate to the nearest service station and you need to say exactly the right command each time and confirm every instruction by saying ‘yes’. We were only offered one petrol station, whereas others systems showed as many as 60.
3. Skoda Citigo-e iV with colour screen and phone holder
The separate buttons for the fan and temperature control are easy to reach and operate. The dial that you use to scroll through the list of radio stations doesn’t make you take your eyes off the road for too long, but the readout is lower than is ideal.
In addition, there isn’t an integrated sat-nav system; instead, Skoda provides a cradle for your smartphone and you have to use that. Opt for Google Maps and it’s just one touch to end guidance. However, it’s a stretch to reach the screen and zooming in and out of the map can be fiddly on the move; the size of the problem is, unsurprisingly, linked to the size of your phone. There’s no voice
control, either, and while you can use your phone’s voice control system, this requires you to select the radio station you want using the phone rather than the dashboard controls.
4. Peugeot 508 SW with 10.0in Connected 3D Navigation and voice recognition
The fan and temperature controls can be accessed only via the touchscreen, so adjusting them is slow. What’s more, the buttons for bringing up the air-con, radio, sat-nav and so on on the touchscreen come straight out of the dash like piano keys and have pale icons on them, making them quite difficult to read.
Once you’ve located the map, you can at least zoom in and out accurately by pinching the screen, although it wouldn’t zoom out far enough to let us see our whole route. Meanwhile, ending navigation just requires you to press two onscreen icons.
There’s a navigation bar to the right of the main radio station list that helps you scroll through these more easily.
You need to know the correct command to get the voice control to respond, but you then need to go through just two steps to complete your task.
=5. Lexus RX with 12.3in multimedia display
Although you can jump to the RX’s main navigation menu using a button on the centre console, you then need to use a touchpad to locate the zoom icon on the screen and press it repeatedly; this is really fiddly. There are two steps to end route guidance, and this, too, is tricky due to the touchpad system.
Similarly, you can use the shortcut button on the centre console to get into the main radio menu, but it’s then time-consuming to scroll using the touchpad. This is easier once you’ve input your favourite stations, and some Lexus models have a radio tuner on the volume button, making life easier still.
The climate control buttons work well enough, and after pressing a button to activate voice control, you just need to say ‘find the next petrol station’ to bring up a list of options, then tell it which one you want.
=5. Honda CR-V with 7.0in touchscreen, Honda Connect and Garmin navigation
Honda provides dials for adjusting the air-con temperature and buttons for the fan, all of which are easy to locate and use.
You can zoom out on the sat-nav map only by pinching it with your fingers, and it isn’t very precise, although the screen itself is reasonably responsive, especially in the high sensitivity setting.
Ending guidance involves just two steps, but the radio stations are grouped in ensembles, so you have to come out of one and go into another to get to Radio 4. It also takes focus to hit the right area of the screen, and the touch-sensitive shortcuts are fiddly.
You need to say a specific command to get the voice control to go into the navigation menu, then choose petrol stations and then pick one. It doesn’t beep after you’ve spoken, so you can spend quite a bit of time glancing at the screen to see if it’s responding.
7. Nissan Juke with Nissan Connect
There are nice, big buttons for the fan and temperature controls, although they are tucked away under large vents. The main touchscreen buttons need to be prodded hard and are extremely slow to respond. You need to pinch the screen to zoom out of the map, and although this is fairly easy, you have to wait for the screen to react each time you resize it. At least route cancelling takes just one prod of the screen.
The radio station list is in alphabetical order, but if you don’t have favourites inputted, it’s a long and frustrating task to scroll through them. Voice control is also slow to react and you need to go through four steps to navigate to the nearest service station. You need to ask it to find a point of interest, then ask it to find petrol stations, tell it the one you want to go to and say “start guidance”.
=8. Toyota Corolla with Touch 2 media system and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
Toyota provides a dial for controlling the temperature and small buttons for the fan speed; they’re all easy to reach.
You can either touch the infotainment screen or use a shortcut button down the side to access the sat-nav, while zooming in and out is easier – but still a little distracting – with the plus and minus icons; the sliding scale alternative is far too sensitive.
Once you’ve learnt how to access the correct menu, turning off guidance requires only two steps. However, you need to know the exact command to get the voice control to do what you want. While this requires just two steps, it doesn’t tell you it has understood each command and is slow to react.
You’ll want to set up radio station favourites, otherwise you’ll spend a lot of time scrolling through a long list of stations in ensembles.
=8. Volvo S60 with Sensus
There are no physical buttons to change the temperature or fan setting; instead, you select a menu on the touchscreen or use the voice control, with the latter option being far less distracting.
You need to use your fingers to zoom out on the sat-nav map, requiring a lot of your attention, although the screen is at least responsive. Meanwhile, ending route guidance takes just two steps on the touchscreen, or via voice control.
In the main radio list, the stations are grouped in ensembles rather than in alphabetical order, so it isn’t easy to find your desired station, but the menu scrolls quickly and easily.
Using the voice control to change radio stations often doesn’t work, while finding a petrol station is convoluted, requiring four steps to select a destination and set the guidance in motion.
10. Jaguar XE with 10.0in Touch Pro Duo system
Jaguar’s Touch Pro Duo system gives each front occupant one large control dial; you twist it to alter the temperature, pull it out then twist to adjust the fan speed, and push it in and twist for the heated seat. It’s a clever bit of packaging and can be operated at a glance instead of you having to hunt for specific buttons.
Ending guidance is also easy, involving two steps on the touchscreen, but zooming in and out on the sat-nav map is fiddly, because you have to pinch with your fingers.
Using the touchscreen to scroll through the long list of DAB stations is also pretty distracting, although it still beats most ensemble-based menus.
After pressing a button on the steering wheel, the voice control is slow to wake up, then you have to give it three specific commands before it’ll guide you to a service station.
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