Is Tesla’s Dashboard Touchscreen No Better Than Texting While Driving?

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In some parts of the country, you don’t have to drive far to see a sign that warns you not to text and drive. However, the rise of dashboard touchscreens has given us an interesting question. Is using the equivalent of a giant iPad while driving any better than texting while driving? Tesla’s dashboard touchscreens are the focus of a new report.

Why drivers should be worried about dashboard touchscreens

According to a press release from the National Safety Council, using cell phones while driving results in 1.6 million crashes every year, and 390,000 injuries result from texting while driving. Other sources suggest that texting while driving makes you six times more likely to cause an accident than while driving drunk. These statistics alone make it immeasurably important to study accident rates involving vehicles with dashboard touchscreens before vehicles without them become obsolete because they look less futuristic.

Now a new report explains why drivers should be concerned about Tesla’s dashboard touchscreens, especially given the dramatic growth in sales of all vehicles with touchscreens. What may be even more concerning is that drivers aren’t even worried a little bit. Not only are sales of touchscreen-equipped cars rising dramatically, but the National Safety Council reports that 53% of drivers believe if “infotainment” dashboards are being put in vehicles, then they must be safe.

The big problem with Tesla’s dashboard touchscreens

A report by Nielsen Norman Group (via Fast Company) explains all the problems with dashboard touchscreens. Of course, while Tesla popularized them, the company is far from the only one utilizing them in the driver’s seat. MarketWatch cited data from IHS Market which indicates that 82% of the vehicles sold this year had touchscreens, compared to 53% five years ago.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Tesla’s dashboard touchscreens (and others on the market) is that there’s no way to feel your way through the controls until you find the right button you’re looking for. Instead of a dashboard with buttons and knobs that can be easily accessed by feel, the car has a massive slab of glass which offers no haptic feedback. In other words, you have to really look at the touchscreen to know what button you’re pushing. Drivers must take their eyes off the road to study the dashboard touchscreen if they want to adjust any controls found in the menus.

Most of the important controls do have physical buttons on or near the steering wheel, but climate control, the media player, phone and rear-view camera are all accessed via the dashboard touchscreen. Additionally, Nielsen Norman’s Raluca Budiu noted that Version 9 of Tesla’s operating system places some features inside an expandable menu. Just try operating that without taking your eyes off the road.

Too much screen interaction, not enough driving

Budiu also pointed to problems with the placement of the buttons on Tesla’s dashboard touchscreen. In the Model S, the buttons are placed along the bottom edge of the display, but this poses a serious problem, both for the hands and eyes to reach them. In fact, she describes this position as the “next worst possible” position, with the right edge being even worse than the bottom because it’s further from the driver.

The hands must travel quite some distance from their positions at nine and three on the steering wheel—thinking like a clock (or ten and two if you learned to drive decades ago). Moving the eyes to the bottom of the massive 17-inch display means they have more distance to travel from the road. That means more time spent not looking at the road and also less of a chance that drivers can use their peripheral vision while driving and working the touchscreen.

Budiu describes the ordering of the buttons along the bottom edge of the display as “at best dubious.” For example, the button that’s closest to the driver isn’t even one that would probably be used while driving. It’s the settings and customizations for the car. The rear-view camera is hidden in the arrow menu, but she notes that this is an essential feature in the Model S since the backseats partially block the rearview mirror.

The phone is also under the arrow menu, although it might also be used while driving. Within the arrow menu, Calendar, Energy and the web browser are given priority over the rear-view camera and phone, which makes this arrangement even worse. All that interaction time trying to find the control you need is time taken away from watching the road.

Size matters… for buttons

Budiu also took issue with the size of the buttons on Tesla’s dashboard touchscreen. It takes less time to find bigger buttons, but in Version 9 of Tesla’s software, the buttons are even smaller, possibly so that more options can be added to the menu bar. Drivers have 10 or 11 options facing them in Version 9 but only seven in Version 8.

Additionally, the buttons are crammed so close to each other that it’s easy to accidentally push the wrong button. Budiu said she often accidentally turns on the seat warmer when trying to adjust the temperature in the car or go into the climate controls. She also believes it’s too easy to accidentally touch the seat icon when trying to go to the most-recently-used app by swiping up on the arrow.

She also said the map in Tesla’s software is in the background of all the apps in the software, making them difficult to read while driving.

Not all bad

She did point out some good things about Tesla’s dashboard touchscreen. For example, she praised the screen’s large size and the fact that it supports multi-tasking, which is necessary while driving. She also likes the map included in Tesla vehicles, which shows the locations of Tesla superchargers and the amount of range that will be left in the car’s battery after driving to a particular location.

She sees the internet-connectedness as both good and bad. It makes it easy for Tesla to push out software updates, but it can be bad if drivers learn the locations of some settings and then end up making mistakes with the touchscreen because the locations changed in the last update.

Tesla stock continued to fall on Thursday. It’s been on a steady decline for nearly the last month, and several hedge fund managers continue to short the stock.

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