Consider the juxtaposition of the cell phone and the in-car cell phone: Nearly everyone owns a cell phone and the LCD touchscreen is a standard in almost every new car. Both are fundamentally the same thing—a touch/tap/swipe interface. This form of control requires visual concentration. You have to look at what you are trying to touch/tap/swipe because you cannot accurately do it purely by feel. It is literally impossible because the screen feels the same, no matter where you touch/tap/swipe.
And when both are moving, it is even harder to accurately touch/tape/swipe without really looking because both it and your finger are moving.
When driving and dealing with a touchscreen, your attention is necessarily divided between the screen and the road. You can glance back-and-forth between one and the other, but it is not possible to keep your eyes on the road and the screen at the same time.
This behavior is considered distracting and is often illegal for that reason—when it comes to the use of cell phones in cars. But remember—it comes standard in almost every new car.
Even more cognitively dissonant is that people are encouraged to be distracted since many of the car’s necessary functions cannot be controlled except via the touchscreen.
You don’t have to make a call or send a text. You pretty much do need to be able to turn on the defroster. Assuming you want to be able to see the road once you take your eyes off the touchscreen.
Isn’t it spectacular?
Actually, it’s revelatory.
What is the real purpose of in-car touchscreens? There are two of them, chiefly—one economic and the other political.
It is cheaper to build a car with a touchscreen to control most of its secondary functions than to build one with manual (knob/button) controls for each of these functions.
A single touchscreen can be plugged into a harness as the car moves down the assembly line more quickly and with less effort than the installation and hooking up (and checking the function of) several different individual physical controls for the same functions.
Installing a touchscreen saves money during assembly and increases profit at the sale because a touchscreen is itself cheap even though it looks slick.
Touchscreens are usually made by the same supplier and most of the time, not unique to the model of car.
There is also the potential for more money to be made after the sale, when the touchscreen goes dark and no longer controls anything. It’s not like a broken button for the climate control that can be easily replaced by you. It requires a new screen, replaced by the dealer.
There is also a more benign factor in play, which is that modern cars have so many features; it is hard to find space for physical controls on the limited dashboard/console real estate. A single large touchscreen cleans up the car’s interior layout, which is a legitimate plus from the standpoint of both the car’s manufacturer and its owner.
But, there is another purpose in play that is more sinister: the political purpose, which is served by not enforcing or even imposing the rules which apply to cell phones.
Touchscreens in cars encourage people to pay less mind to drive to acclimate them to not driving at all, which is the end goal. Touchscreens are used to purposely distract drivers, which serves the purpose of creating the problem of distracted driving. The solution is then easy:
No more driving.
The touchscreen’s very perplexity is its primary advantage in that it makes the driver yearn for a car that doesn’t require driving so that the now “passenger” can give full attention to the menu and all that entertainment.
It isn’t a coincidence that the rise and ubiquity of the in-car flatscreen dovetails with the rise and hoped-for-ubiquity of self-driving car technology.
Note that the more self-driving the car, the larger its touchscreen generally is and the more comprehensive, too.
Teslas, for example, have huge touchscreens; practically everything is controlled via touch/tap/swipe. The driver is encouraged to cede control over the car (to the Autopilot) so that the attention is diverted to all the brightly backlit apps.
Keep them amused, you see, and you can keep them under control.
And that’s the rule for all the reasons.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books and reviewing cars and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.