How dangerous is the Tesla tablet-in-the-dash?

The more we see big flat glass touch panels show up in the dashboard of new cars, the less I am convinced that in-dash experience designers are ignoring in-your-lap tablet experience design principles and norms, and the more it looks like they’re just copying-and-pasting their tablet interaction models straight to the car.

I have a recent Prius and I have long since lost interest in fighting with that hard-to-control-at-a-glance UI.  This week I saw this article on the Tesla and felt like if even this pinnacle of beautiful design can’t seem to understand driver needs, it’s going to be a long time (and a lot of road scares and harm) before we ever tune the technology to actually assist and not detract from the driver’s main job.

Tesla touchscreen

One colleague started discussion saying:

I love Tesla! The Model S is a gorgeous car. Finally, somebody designed an electric car that doesn’t look terrible. As for the dashboard, I think the UI is awesome. But I’m not sure it doesn’t impact the driver’s ability to pay attention to the road. I like the tactile sensation of knobs and buttons when I’m driving. I feel like I will have to pay much more attention to a fully touch dashboard, and thus pay less attention to the road.

I love the intent to question aging, anachronistic design paradigms, and to experiment with “start from scratch” designs. I too am concerned that this “iPad on your dash” hasn’t yet reached the balance between “fully flexible and context-dependent” and “easy for users to learn and fumble to a correct interaction without massive shifts in attention off the many critical attention foci that surround a moving vehicle every second”. It’s concerning that we’re literally performing these experiments on life-and-limb-threatening and increasingly attention-distracted roadways while the industry teaches itself new interaction models.

Without any physical affordances (e.g. edges/boundaries, permanent/predictable/easily-learnable targets) the 17-inch piece of glass is a nightmare of “at a glance, with little attention” interactions in a car for the driver. An interesting middle ground (which I hope we reach in the future) is a balance of bright, big, non-distracting display and haptic/physically-bounded touch targets [for touch interactions] and/or less-intrusive voice/eye-tracking/gesture-based input models.

For me, trying to touch those never-in-the-same-place-from-UI-to-UI buttons on my Prius’ touchscreen is just dangerous, frustrating and error-prone. At minimum, I’d like to see these “buttons” about 2-3 times their current size, so I can just grossly mash at them rather than have to precisely target them.

These kinds of finger-sized touch targets work find on a tablet where you have time to concentrate; very counterproductive in car UI [for the driver] where I’d expect sub-second glance-target-mash-resume interactions should be the interim goal (and “no loss of visual attention on the roadway” should be the final goal).

Colleague 2 said:

The future aviation dashboards are touch rich devices (thales avionics future cockpit won a design award).


But the industry is currently in a bit of a split. The modernization of the flight systems is helping the more mundane tasks like cruising or altitude climbing, but creating huge problems with takeoffs/descents/approaches/landings. Instead of knowing the 10 buttons you need to push/turn, you now need to remember what menu things are under. In an emergency, the manual systems have a better result. There aren’t any hidden features of the aircraft that you might have accidentally triggered.


There is also a school of thought that all this aircraft automation/simplification is creating pilots that don’t know how to fly well. So when an emergency hits. They are just as clueless as the passengers as to what to do.

I worry about this.  I sincerely hope that we never find drivers in the position of having to perform emergency interactions with their car’s controls through a flat-glass, multi-level-menu touch interface. It’s bad enough this has begun to creep into the airline industry; hopefully the car manufacturers are being more cognizant of the vehicle occupants’ lives (though I worry that the buried-deep-in-the-bowels-of-the-corporation’s-design-studios’ interface designers aren’t always made to recognize this as the primary goal of every surface of the vehicle).

At least in the case of an airplane at 30,000 feet, there’s a little time to recover from a significant mistake [boy I sure hope that’s true]; in the case of a car, I can’t call up Robert Hays from the back seat to take over when I screw up – no least because most screw-ups that threaten life and limb afford very low latency.


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