The connected car experience continues to fall short

Connected cars need more UX design emphasis on behavioral science and neuroscience.

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared on Roger Chen’s blog, Beyond the bell curve. It is reposted here with permission.

There’s been a lot of buzz about the connected car recently. That’s nothing new, but it feels a little more serious this time around. The discussion has become more sophisticated, driven by the ongoing maturation of smartphones and device connectivity. My reason for interest in the connected car remains a rather simple one: cars aren’t going away. Smartphones aren’t either. And people will only use information technology more and more going forward. Yup, more selfies and snaps behind a steering wheel (I feel myself getting angry already).

A lot of discussion has centered on how the connected car will evolve. How heavily will car makers lean on third-party platforms like Android or iOS? How will car companies facilitate third-party integration? How much do they want to do on their own? What about cross-brand functionality? What standards will have to be in place? Who’s going to set them — the automotive industry or the government? Given the plethora of existing content and legitimate uncertainty about the answers, I don’t want to focus on those issues here. Instead, allow me to dive into how drivers will interact with the connected car. Sure, people have discussed this as well, but there is a critical point that most seem to overlook: the winning connected car experience will be the safest connected car experience, hands down.

With all the buzz around contextual awareness these days, it’s fascinating to me that the car is perhaps the perfect proving ground for a contextually aware future because if it isn’t done right, people will die. It’s that consequence that has led me to stress the importance of safety. No one will use a system — no matter how delightful the experience is — if people die from it.

At this point, many would cite the advent of voice technologies as a clear-cut solution to this problem. Here, I would like to debunk that notion and show that we are still far from seeing the right connected car experience. There are both neurological and social reasons why. One study has shown that humans have limited mental resources to allocate across the different parts of the brain. Effectively, this means that simultaneously performing different actions like driving and listening make us worse at both. To prove this, fMRI images were taken as test subjects underwent driving simulations. They showed that brain activity associated with visual information processing decreased as brain activity related to speech processing picked up when listening to auditory stimuli. Not a huge surprise, right? However, the biggest implication of this for the connected car is that hands-free voice technology alone does not ensure safer driving, contrary to common assumption.

Biological limitations aren’t the only factor, though. Social dynamics play a huge role as well. When talking over mobile, hands-free or not, a driver might be hesitant to seem silent out of fear of being rude, so he or she tries to pay attention. Meanwhile, when it’s a passenger speaking to the driver, that passenger often knows when the driver needs to focus on the road, and, well, shuts up at the appropriate moments. In fact, several studies have now empirically shown that hands-free voice has not been any safer than using a cell phone. You can find a World Health Organization study here and a National Safety Council study here.

So what does this all mean? I’m definitely not saying that hands-free voice technology won’t be a major part of the future connected car, but we will need to start crafting user experience (UX) with much more emphasis on the behavioral science and even neuroscience of driving. If you think you’re close to figuring things out, I would love to talk.

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  • atolley

    “.It’s that consequence that has led me to stress the importance of
    safety. No one will use a system — no matter how delightful the
    experience is — if people die from it.”

    Really? We do all sorts of dangerous things in cars despite the resulting death rate. That certain actions have been made illegal – texting, talking on a cell phone, is proof of that. Nevertheless, drivers still talk on regular cellphones, read maps and books, eat and drink, etc. Reality suggests that your basic premise is wrong.

    • rgrchen

      That’s a fair point, but I think you’re missing the point. The very behavior you cited is why I say future connected car technologies will need to better address such tendencies. Your premise is that existing driver recklessness suggests there’s no limit to that recklessness. I think any further adoption of technology in the car will happen when it’s good enough i.e. within people’s risk tolerance, which cell phones now are. My reality suggests that successfully deploying new tech generally requires human adaptability, regulations, AND adapting technology to people. Are you saying the latter doesn’t matter?