Touch Screens in Cars Solve a Problem We Didn’t Have

Despite my best efforts to stay young at heart,I have somehow reached the point in my life — 42 years old, dad, mostly sedentary — where I feel perpetually assaulted by small changes in my daily routine.

This was certainly an expected development, but one I feel relatively powerless against. And because I believe that a writer should age with his audience (nothing is sadder than a columnist who spends a clueless decade or so pretending like he’s still one of the cool kids), I want to introduce what will be a recurring segment in this newsletter. The official name is still pending, but a good working title might be “Get Off My Lawn: A 42-Year-Old Dad Complains About Change.” I make no promises about how often these pieces will appear, but I hope to treat it like a Quaker meeting in which I will speak when the spirit of small grievances moves me.

Today, I want to talk about the oversized touch screen in my Subaru Outback. All my car’s important functions, which once were controlled by perfectly serviceable buttons, have now been relegated to a matrix of little boxes on a glowing screen. And of course the screen does not even really comply with my commands. Instead, it randomly changes its brightness and then disconnects my phone at the exact moment when I actually need to look at the navigation map.

To do something as simple as change the direction of the air-conditioning from blasting in my face to blasting at my feet or to listen to a podcast, I need to hunt for a tiny, sensitive square, wait for a second screen to load, and then find the appropriate icon on that new screen. This generally takes me about 10 seconds of inattention to the road because despite having owned this car for two years, I have zero intuitive sense of where these small shapes and pictures are.

This presents me with a decision, one that must be made while driving: I can jab blindly at the screen while swerving on the road; I can try to make Siri play the podcast or adjust the air, an option that has not once worked; or I can drive in silence with the air-conditioning blasting in my face. I almost always choose the option of least resistance, which means that I am essentially driving a car with no adjustable climate control and no radio.

The question of whether touch screens are good or bad was actually broached way back in 1986, when Buick put something called the Graphic Control Center in its Riviera line. What’s particularly striking about the Graphic Control Center, a nine-inch touch screen in the center of the dashboard, was that it wasn’t all that functionally different from today’s versions.

You could turn the fan up and down, you could set your car’s temperature and you could change the radio station. There was a five-band sound equalizer that you could use to turn up the bass in your speakers. (The funniest, and perhaps most useful, feature was the “Reminder” function, which was like a to-do list for the driver. Here’s a video showing all the functions.)

But by 1990, Buick had abandoned the Graphic Control Center after drivers complained that every small adjustment to the car’s temperature or radio caused them to take their eyes off the road while they prodded a touch screen.

Thirty-two years later, touch screens are not only back but mostly standard. The complaints are the same: The screens are equally useless and enraging. Distracted, frustrated drivers, of course, are dangers to themselves and everyone else on the road.

The only difference now is that the evidence on the effects that glowing screens have on automotive safety is overwhelming. In 2017, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that performing tasks on a car’s screen took a driver’s attention away from the road for more than 40 seconds. (A thorough rundown of the safety issues can be found here.) With traffic fatalities spiking over the past few years and with no real plan for how to make screens less distracting, we seem to have entered into the type of brutal acquiescence that’s common in the tech era — car manufacturers will keep putting bigger and more complicated screens in cars without much thought to safety or even functionality, and we, the consumers, will continue to buy them.

This process in which tech proliferates for no particularly good reason has been described, in part, by the writer Evgeny Morozov in his treatises on “solutionism,” which he defines as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” Corporations, buoyed by competition, will sometimes even invent problems that don’t exist, in this case the lack of a giant screen that more or less mirrors your phone.

There is no justification for the switch from knobs, switches and buttons to touch screens. We have been conditioned, in part by Apple’s iPhone design aesthetics, to believe that every product will inevitably follow an evolution chart from what it is today to its eventual end as a flat, glowing screen that plays episodes of “Ted Lasso” on demand. Once the screen, itself, has become normalized and mostly runs out of ways to improve, the next move is just to make it bigger. The new Cadillac Lyriq, for example, comes with a 33-inch touch screen, which is significantly larger than the televisions most of us grew up watching.

The incentives of carmakers are pretty clear: Touch screens are cheaper than designing and installing a mechanical panel. And given that most cars today are reliable, come with lengthy warranties and an array of mostly uniform features, a big screen becomes a way for a car brand to distinguish itself from its competitors, especially on the showroom floor before potential buyers have a chance to really immerse themselves in just how annoying the screen will be.

I can think of no better way of describing the frustration of the modern consumer than buying a car with a feature that makes you less safe, doesn’t improve your driving experience in any meaningful way, saves the manufacturer money and gets sold to you as some necessary advance in “connectivity” because it links you to all the other useless things you do every day on your phone.

We might not be able to stop car manufacturers from installing these increasingly gigantic screens, but I would like to present a solution to the only real “problem” that these giant screens solved: How do you watch your maps app while driving? Buy one of those $9 stands that affixes itself to the dashboard of your car and put your phone in it. That way, you can turn on your maps app while driving and keep it at eye level.

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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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