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Cutting Edge Car Consoles Raise Safety Concerns

Cutting Edge Car Consoles Raise Safety Concerns

No more knobs—today’s cars come with touch screens and flat panel buttons. It can be like having a computer in your console.

"Anything you can do on a laptop, you can pretty much do here. You have your navigation up top, you've got your Twitter feed on the bottom, you can search the web even while you're driving,” said Jennifer Stockburger, Director of Operations for Consumer Reports Auto Test Center.

Stockburger was describing one type of car. But there are a lot of different vehicles out there competing to have the most cutting-edge technology built right in. In the industry, these systems are known as “infotainment.”

We teamed up with Consumer Reports to find out just how distracting these in-car infotainment systems can be. The product rating organization factors the complexity of controls into its car ratings. We tested four cars on Consumer Reports’ test track, each with three simple tasks: change the radio station, change the climate mode and adjust fan speed.

The first car we tested was a 2014 Subaru Forester. It’s rated highly by Consumer Reports.

"It's a very traditional radio,” said Consumer Reports Automotive Data Analyst Mike Leung.

On the track, I did well with the Subaru and completed all three tasks on my first try. I only took my eyes off of the road for one second at a time.

Next up was a Dodge Dart equipped with Chrysler's UConnect system. It has both a touch screen and standard knobs, and rates well with Consumer Reports. On the track the tasks took a little more concentration. Still, I tuned the radio and turned up the air pretty easily, though I took my eyes off of the road for up to two seconds this time. Stockburger later showed me how much ground I covered in just those few moments.

“At 50 mph in two seconds, you’re covering about 150 feet,” she said, “Obviously, people are following a lot closer than that and the data says in those same two seconds you've doubled your risk of a crash.”

We also tried out the more complex systems in the Lincoln MKZ and Cadillac XTS. Both offer a lot of features but the controls score poorly with Consumer Reports

“Some of these systems, it doesn't matter how long you've owned the car. There's nothing to familiarize yourself with other than the area of the touch screen you're going to approach. But you will still need to look and take your hand off the wheel,” said Stockburger.

I had a tougher time with Lincoln's MyLincoln Touch system, because navigating the sleek display and touchscreen took time and attention. It took a couple runs through the course before I could even change the radio station.

The Cadillac XTS with the Cadillac CUE system was the most complex.

I took my eyes off of the road more times with this system, and for longer--up to four seconds at one point.

We showed our test track video to John Ivan, an accident prediction expert at UConn.

“Is it surprising you how much I'm looking away?” I asked him.
“Yea, you're looking away quite a bit,” answered Ivan.

Ivan explained that touchscreens only give visual feedback, unlike knobs which you can feel for. And he worries that's actually making driving more complicated.

"Making the driving task easier and less taxing is good,” he said, “and if the technology is not doing that than I have to question the value of that for use by the driver."

“It doesn't really have to be you holding your cell phone or texting. Those are the things people are typically thinking of when they're thinking distraction. It can actually be the vehicle itself,” said Stockburger.

Granted, my test track experience wasn't real life. I was trying out these cars for the first time, and hadn't yet gotten used to the controls. So we enlisted the help of our Troubleshooters’ videographer, Daryl Vallez. We mounted cameras in his 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan with touchscreen controls, and recorded his driving as he ran errands with his kids in the back seat.

Daryl didn't think the van he'd driven for two years was distracting, but as he used the touch screen to do routine things, he took his eyes off the road more than thirty times in a ten minute drive. Often, he was looking away from the road for up to two seconds at a time.

"Yea it surprised me a little bit. I try not to do it while I'm actually on the road,” said Daryl.

He explained that despite being familiar with the controls, he still has to take his eyes off the road for some features.

“It worries me at times. I usually try to do it in the parking lot before I get on the road but there's times when they'll say, ‘hey I'm hot,’ and I have to turn on the AC for them,” Daryl said.

There are alternatives: all of the infotainment systems we tested offer voice activated technology so you can stay hands free.

In a statement to NBC Connecticut, Ford (the parent company of Lincoln) said,

We believe driver distraction is a very important issue. We encourage the use of hands-free voice-activated technology, such as our own SYNC service offering to help drivers keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Drivers experience many different types of distraction on a daily basis, such as reading maps and directions, having conversations and listening to music when they drive. Research shows that, when a driver’s eyes are away from the road for an extended period – such as when texting – the risk of an accident increases substantially. That is why both our Ford and Lincoln brands support a ban on drivers using hand-held devices.

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