texting while driving

HUDs Don’t Solve the Problem

My Take

I have been following the public debates about distracting driving and cell phone use with some dismay. The biggest problem seems to be the intuitive attractiveness of handsfree cell phone usage. The general public wants to use their cell phones while driving. But the distraction they cause is hard to deny. So hands free is a very alluring solution. And since they don’t know much about cognitive attention and distraction, the fact that the driver can keep his or her eyes on the road while using the phone in handsfree mode seems like a fix.

As we in the human factors profession well know, the visual attention is not even half the battle. The mental draw of the conversational content (whether voice or text) has an even greater distraction than the need to look at the phone.

So now in comes a new crop of startups intent on capturing the in-car phone market. Instead of handsfree, they are using the heads-up display model to show the user interface on the windshield. Three companies are discussed in this Boston Globe innovation story.

How is that different from looking at speedometer or fuel gage? University of Toronto psychology professor Ian Spence explains, “One difference is that dashboard instruments need you to glance down — thus you are in control of the shift in visual attention. When things on the road are busy, you can keep your attention there, where it belongs, outside.”

SenseDriver uses a mirror that shows through the HUD screen. It is controlled by inserting your phone into a cradle. They have the visual effects down pretty well. The brightness can be adjusted. Control is through speech commands. It can connect with maps, music players, social networks, and more. But that’s OK – its handsfree.

Navdy uses a projector that sits on the dashboard and connects to your smartphone wirelessly. It is controlled with either speech or gesture. I am not sure where gesture comes in, but I guess it is when you are cruising down the highway with the top down and the airflow makes too much noise. Or perhaps driving through a construction zone.

Finally, Hudway is developing a special glass product that doesn’t require projection to display your smartphone screen. It uses a cradle like SenseDriver but doesn’t have much screen adjustability. Still a work in progress.

But what I liked most about the article is that it presents the downsides as well. Often, innovation pieces in the Business section are more hype than substance, especially when promoting local businesses in the local paper. But Scott Kirsner interviews U of Toronto professor Ian Spence who has some good thoughts about visual attention. He warns that when the display is on the screen, it is hard to ignore when the driving context gets challenging (such as heavy traffic or bad weather) and the driver wants to focus on the road. At least when the screen is on the dashboard, it is easy(er) to ignore. Projected on the windshield, it is just as distracting as the animated ads we see on web pages.

And even worse, this is counter intuitive to most drivers. So they will get overconfident when using the HUD-based system, increase their risk tolerance, and be in even more jeopardy. Not good.

Your Turn

Are you as worried about the HUD version of the handsfree craze as I am? Do you agree with Dr. Spence that the visual pull of a changing display in foveal view is even worse than a phone display in the dash?

Image Credit: Intel Free Press

2 thoughts on “HUDs Don’t Solve the Problem”

  1. I am VERY worried about all this technology being put into automobiles that clearly distracts drivers from the driving task. I don’t know what these manufacturers (and even professional associations like SAE) are thinking – clearly it seems like $$$ earned from selling “features” is dominating any real concern for safety. And I have seen the “researchers” in this area do all sorts of clever experimental design things to try to show that the technology does not distract the driver, but it’s all bunk, in my opinion. Hands free, eyes free, etc., does not mean brain-free! And I have seen too many drivers, clearly preoccupied with their technology, sitting at “green lights” because they just weren’t paying attention, or doing other annoying and dangerous things. I don’t think we need a ton of wasted research studies to tell us that it is the COGNITIVE preoccupation with technology that is the problem. If you’re going to drive, drive. If you want to play with your computer or your phone – pull over! You don’t multi-task nearly as well as you think you do!

  2. Excellently said Daryle. We have covered the difference between cognitive attention and visual attention many times on EID and it continues to be a huge challenge. It is not just a problem with cars – in my own web design research we have found a huge disconnect between visual focus on advertising and cognitive results (brand memory, purchase intentions, and so on). Companies spend tens of millions on ads that don’t work, even when customers look at them (but don’t see them). Of course here, lives are not at stake.

    In part, the problem is that visual attention is intuitive to non-experts so the ideas of hands free and eyes free make sense to them. It is an easy up-sell for a $2,000 “safety” accessory, which yields a tidy profit margin.

    Some new research (which I plan to discuss here on EID soon so stay tuned) focuses on inattention deafness. As cognitive load increases, we don’t hear either. I can’t wait to hear what they come up with for ears-free design.

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