Is your car distracting you to death?


Is all the clever tech in your shiny new car helping or hindering your attention to the core driving process? Do you even know what all the beeps and chimes mean?


HMI is all about control architecture, feedback and the flow of information. The car tells you stuff, and you act on it - hopefully it’s the right stuff and the right actions, and you get home without a detour to the emergency department.

This is where the HMI dudes live - and their playground has enlarged somewhat lately. This Kim Kardashian-isation - arse-wise - of the HMI arena is due to the increasing complexity of modern cars.

A modern car bombards you with all this ‘information’ (if that’s the right word) about the driving process.

And a lot of it is simply bullshit. Dangerously distracting bullshit. Here’s an example: I remember many, many years of the donkey ago, being on an Audi TT launch in some God-forsaken forest in Western Australia…

We’re screaming through the forest, and the message centre between the speedo and the tacho suddenly lights up. Cracker night. That’s fourth of July (Murica). Big orange warning symbol. Like a volcano erupting. Mt Vesuvius, or something.

This is distracting, right? I’m setting the car up for a big, sweeping right-hander on gravel. Big trees on both sides. Attention to detail: Important.

I get out, check the car out: All good, seemingly. No volcano-like leaks, anywhere, that I can see. No lava. Water, oil, tyre pressures. Seems fine. Urgent orange spurty symbol on the dash: Still there. Bastard.

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Long story short: It’s the low headlamp washer fluid warning indicator. Those boxhead mother-lovers.

Couple of points on this: One - I don’t need to know that when I’m driving. It’s not mission-critical. So why not just chime in later, on shutdown, instead of distracting me?

Why not have a list of mission-critical immediate warnings: low oil pressure, over-temp, low tyre pressure, whatever. Plus a list of things that can wait?

Two - Not only do I specifically not need to know this, knowing it can conceivably distract me, and hurt me. Badly. How hard is this to figure out? Your friggin’ job in HMI land is to make driving easier.

What if some hapless owner stops, immediately, in a dangerous place, wanting to protect their shiny new monkey spanking toy? Gets cleaned up. That’s kind of a bad outcome - dying because your headlamp washer fluid got low. How ignominious…

The next thing I want to talk to you about is ‘false positives’. A false positive is, like, you’re walking through the forest 100,000 years ago and there’s some - I don’t know - bustle in the hedgerow behind you, it could be the wind or it could be a hungry tiger.

If you react and it’s the wind, you look like a dick. If you don’t react and it’s a tiger, you become lunch - and then you don’t get to pass your genes on to subsequent generations.

So false-positive reactors tend to survive. It’s deeply ingrained in us at a gene-type level.

But it is intensely frustrating in a car. Take lane-keeping assistance. So many intelligence insulting beeps and warning symbols. I know I’m close to the right edge of the lane - I put the damn car there because a left-hander is imminent.

Blind spot monitoring - don’t keep warning me. I know that car is there. I know it’s there because I set the damn mirrors up correctly and I’m situationally aware in 360 degrees when I drive a car. Because that’s my job.

Parking sensors: same thing. Too many false positives. Beeping because you’re in imminent danger of hitting three petals of a dandelion or something.

All these beeps and chimes and flashes, warning us all of non-threats, continuously. So what do you do? You ignore them. Or you turn them off, because they annoy the shit out of you. Because they don’t help.

And then, one day you actually are drifting out of the lane, or you haven’t seen that car in the adjacent lane, or the parking sensor detects a child and not some branch hanging over the driveway - and it’s a disaster. A preventable disaster.

I really do want to slap those automotive HMI dudes, collectively - Bosch, etc., carmakers collectively - you arseholes have an obsession with endless false positives. Thousands of false positives for every real threat.

The real threats become needles in a haystack of false positivity.

The real threats get lost - so either the HMI design protocols are shit, or the technology is just not quite there yet.

There’s a third possibility of course: This is so bad in modern cars that I sense the evil input of lawyers. The disturbance in The Force is that bad.

It could be an arse-covering legal directive to detect everything; then they can’t sue us for not warning them.


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