Cars & Smart Screens

I’d been reading a lot lately about the implementation of touch screens in automobile dashboards — and in particular, how grave a danger this particular use of technology is. In sum: Touch screens have no haptic feedback — when you use a touch screen dash, you have to look where you press rather than being able to blindly feel for the correct button or dial present on a traditional dashboard. Distracted driving = accidents = problem.

Some folks are trying to solve this by inventing a better touch screen dashboard. The same Forbes author suggests a dash where key functions have hardware buttons and auxiliary functions move to the touch screen. TechCrunch raves about a solution where you don’t have to look at the touch screen, but you still have to learn five all-new, unnatural gestures — which makes it seem like operating the dash becomes a skillset akin to operating a stick shift.

Renault is building a concept car where, while you’re driving, you can use a touch screen to operate a remote toy helicopter. Which is…uh… wow.

Suffice it to say, I think all of the endeavors above — not just helicopter-pocalypse — are steps in the wrong direction. Emblematic examples of technology looking for a problem to solve, rather than solving for a problem already outstanding.

The current-day dashboard doesn’t really have an interface problem. Ask anyone aged 18-68 who’s ever been behind the wheel how to adjust the radio, and they’ll probably do it naturally. Dash board interfaces are already pretty smart and comprehensive.[ref]Maybe you could make a case that we’d benefit from a standardized set of dash controls across all cars — the same way all cars have the same interface for pedals and steering wheels. Or point out how many key functions are moving from buttons on the dash to buttons on the steering wheel. Both fair arguments. But that’s not today’s point.[/ref]

On the other hand.

What if I told you that every single car today already has — not one, but three — screens built in which are genuinely stupid, and are the direct cause of an incalculable number of traffic accidents? And furthermore, relatively simple technology could probably completely fix these performance issues?

Thousands of lives, millions of dollars in damages saved. You’d think automakers would probably jump at an opportunity like this, right? Nah. Instead, they’re finding cutesy ways to make questionable improvements on volume knobs.

I’m not about to propose we add electronics and diagnostics to the windshield. God knows the last thing we need[ref]Well, there was that whole remote helicopter thing…so maybe second-to-last.[/ref] is another colorful distraction in the driver’s direct line of sight.

Rather, here are the dumb screens I’m thinking of:

You might not have thought of these as “screens,” because they traditionally go by a different name: “mirrors.” But I see these as screens — as interfaces — all the same. And mirrors, as things go, are especially dumb.

For example:

  • Isn’t it dumb that you have to rely on tricks of light to judge the presence of traffic around you?
  • Isn’t it dumb that you have to adjust these screens every time someone who’s taller or shorter takes a turn driving the car?
  • Isn’t it dumb that these screens can be blinding if hit with headlights at night?
  • Isn’t it dumb that one of the screens is explicitly inaccurate and says “Objects may be closer than they appear?”
  • Isn’t it dumb that, even after all of those hurdles, these screens are still wildly unreliable, and have blind spots which you can only avoid by turning your head completely away from the road in front of you to double-check?

Sounds like a pretty ripe opportunity for progress. My solution (like pretty much all the best solutions) is painfully simple:

  1. Rear-facing cameras.
  2. LCD screens swapped in for these mirrors.
  3. Connect (1) to (2).

Totally solved, no? Let me reiterate: We’re talking about completely obliterating blindspots on cars. You could easily position the cameras around the hood of the car to form a perfect viewing radius. If you’ve ever used a television you’ll know that LCD screens are clearly viewable by people of all sizes, and are also good at the nominal task of not blinding people.

So what’s the holdup? Can’t be a cost thing; we’ve already got high-quality cameras in all of our ~$X00 cell phones, so they can’t be prohibitive. Can’t be a reliability thing; our cars already rely on a litany of other electronics just as likely to default. Can’t be a durability thing; we’ve already got jumbotrons in outdoor sports stadiums that hold up fine against the elements (and besides, side-view mirrors only have to be outside the car because of the tricks-of-light thing — the new smart screens could easily be located inside the cabin and work just fine).

Look, technology is great. Imagination is great. It’s admittedly wrong of me to harshly criticize the Renault prototype, which is so clearly a concept car designed to inspire creativity and which will assuredly never see the light of day.

But the best innovations are the ones that solve real problems, first and foremost, method of implementation be damned. Ford SUVs save untold anguish by truly understanding a unique and universal car use-case and thus enabling drivers to open their trunks hands-free. And I save untold lives by re-framing the concept of a “screen” and thus opening new opportunities for interface. No 31st-century technology required.

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