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Auto Innovation

Can Google Design a Car Touchscreen That Isn't a Dangerous Distraction?

A demonstration of Android Auto during Google I/O 2014 in San Francisco, on June 25

Photograph by Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

A demonstration of Android Auto during Google I/O 2014 in San Francisco, on June 25

Automakers are increasingly integrating touchscreens into vehicles—to the dismay of safe-driving advocates, who justifiably fear people are already too distracted by phone calls and texts while driving. So tech companies are responding by designing what they say are safer ways for customers to stay glued to their favorite apps and online services behind the wheel. Google’s (GOOG) Android is working on an interface to make it safer and more user-friendly through a platform called Android Auto, which allows maps, music, and personal organization functions on your phone to be accessed through a larger screen in the car. Followers are describing it as Android’s answer to Apple’s (AAPL) CarPlay.

“People don’t want to check their phones at the doors when they get behind the wheel,” Patrick Brady, Google’s director for engineering of Android, says in a promotional video released at the Google I/O developer conference this week. With Android Auto, “you get the best of both worlds. You get the connected apps and services on your smartphone, with the physical controls that were optimized for driving in your car.”

Google design manager Henry Newton-Dunn says the problem now is that cars are “fundamentally disconnected vehicles.” This leads many drivers to juggle their phones while driving—a bad idea, since the screens are too small and the interface and menus too complicated to navigate. “We had to take an experience that was designed for a smartphone and break it down to its bare essentials,” Brady says in the video, which shows drivers tapping on the screen to use Google maps and using voice controls to set reminders on their phones.

Interest in smartphone design is hot, and as an extension, designing a smart screen for the car is getting hotter, too. Already, 28 carmakers in the Open Automotive Alliance are working with Android Auto. The problem is that while adding smartphone functionality to a car lets you do more while driving, safe driving generally requires you to do less. In other words, this problematic, dangerous behavior may not be something that can be designed around via a bigger, better device. Rather, the problem is that humans are not particularly good at multitasking.

In the past, a car’s functions were limited. A radio and tape or CD player were easily operated by a couple of knobs, and that’s about it. A touchscreen, on the other hand, enables drivers to do as many things as the apps they’ve downloaded will allow—Pandora (P), Spotify, and MLB At Bat, to name a few in Android Auto—not to mention make phone calls. Yet it lacks tactile cues to help drivers find what they need without looking. Even larger, easier-to-find digital icons require drivers to take their eyes off the road, and choosing from an ever-growing catalog of activities and menus means more distraction from the main task at hand.

Just talking to passengers is a major contributor to auto crashes, and conversation involves only cognitive distraction. Activities such as interacting with a dashboard are manual and visual, explained USA Today. A study for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety described listening to the radio as a “minimal” distraction, talking on a cell phone (handheld or handsfree) as a “moderate” risk, and using voice-activated systems to send and receive e-mail as an “extensive” safety risk.

Still, Google, Apple, and other companies are competing to find ways to get more media and connectivity into vehicles. For Google, using Android Auto also means drivers will continue using its services during their commute. Perhaps the only thing that will make screens truly safe to use on the road is a self-driving car. Of course, Google’s working on that too.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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