Over the last decade, I’ve documented and critiqued automakers’ struggles to create intuitive and safe infotainment systems. These shortcomings are the primary reason that car companies—and consumers—have embraced Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto as alternatives.
Whether you drive a BMW or a Buick, CarPlay and Android Auto have brought much needed consistency to OEM infotainment. And recent research from the AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that Apple and Google’s systems easily outperform automakers’ often kludgy infotainment systems.
Along with researchers from the University of Utah, AAA’s Center for Driving Safety evaluated five 2017 and 2018 vehicles with CarPlay, Android Auto, and their own “native” infotainment system to gauge the amount of visual and mental demand each placed on drivers. The research involved a pool of 76 drivers ranging in age from 21 to 35 and used a rating scale to measure the visual and cognitive demands of each system as well as the amount of time it took drivers to complete a task.
The scale ranged from low to very high, with a low level approximating “listening to the radio or an audiobook” and a very high creating demand “similar to balancing a checkbook while driving,” according to AAA. The researchers found that CarPlay and Android Auto caused an overall moderate level of demand for four tasks—navigation, calling/dialing, texting, and audio entertainment—whereas OEM systems generally created very high levels.
AAA noted that “CarPlay and Android Auto were 24 percent (5 seconds) faster on average than the vehicle’s native system when making a call and 31 percent (15 seconds) faster when programming navigation.” But even though CarPlay and Android Auto easily outperformed OEM systems, AAA cautioned that they still can cause distraction.
And the organization called for even more uniformity with automotive infotainment systems and cooperation between car companies and Apple and Google.
2 Seconds of Distraction Doubles Risk of Crash
AAA found that with CarPlay and Android Auto “drivers still took up to 33 seconds to complete a navigation task, compared to 48 seconds for native systems,” and “at 25mph, drivers can travel the length of three football fields during this time. This difference is critical,” AAA added, “as drivers who take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds double their risk of a crash.”
AAA also noted that CarPlay and Android can differ from vehicle to vehicle depending on how it interacts with the car’s electronics. The researchers found that some cars have “additional menus and text on vehicle touch-screen displays, which increases the overall workload on drivers,” and “some vehicles allowed drivers to access their entire contact list when calling or texting, while others limited the number of contacts shown or completely blocked access.”
AAA is urging automakers to work with Apple and Google to make the two smartphone-projection platforms as well as their own infotainment system more consistent and less distracting. “Automakers are experts at building safer cars, but Google and Apple are more skilled at building safer vehicle infotainment technology,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s president and CEO.
“By leveraging their strengths, the two industries must work together to significantly improve the design, functionality, and safety of these technologies,” Doney added.
From witnessing the development of automotive infotainment over the last 10 years and testing more than 50 vehicles each year, I agree there’s more Apple, Google, and automakers can do to perfect these systems. But designing an infotainment interface that’s easy to operate and isn’t distracting while driving at 70mph is a difficult task for car and tech companies. And at least Apple CarPlay and Android Auto—and some OEM infotainment systems—beat the tempting alternative for many drivers to pick up their phones and access the same features.