Have car touchscreens become too complicated?

Motorists have become more reliant on using voice controls in cars due to major distraction concerns around operating tech-heavy touchscreen systems, new study claims.

More than half of drivers say they feel safer asking their motors to change settings on the move - such as tuning to a radio station or setting a new sat-nav destination - rather than fumbling to find a button or trying to work though the ever-increasing number of menus and submenus loaded into large and overcomplicated infotainment displays.

The findings from the study come as vehicle safety bodies have told car makers to ditch distracting touchscreen systems and reintroduce button and switch controls to avoid being penalised in crash test ratings.

In a What Car? poll of 954 drivers with vehicles that have voice control systems built in, nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) said they find being able to use spoken commands an easier way to navigate the abundance of features now available in the latest models.

With manufacturers seemingly pivoting away from physical buttons and operating switches in favour of bulking controls into touchscreens - usually to give an uncluttered cabin feel - this is having a detrimental impact on driver distraction.

And this is already an increasing problem on our roads; distraction is listed as a factor in 17 per cent of all accidents in 2022 – up from 13 per cent a decade earlier.

Its wider poll of almost 1,500 UK drivers (including those with motors without voice command tech) also found that manufacturers' fixation with fitting their latest models with complicated iPad-style gadgets is becoming a major turn-off.

Three in five (60 per cent) said they would be put off purchasing a model that didn't have traditional buttons and switches on the dashboard and relied heavily on touchscreen controls.

In contrast, just 8 per cent said they would be more attracted to a motor with a completely uncluttered cockpit with almost all the functions adjustable via a flashy touchscreen system.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of the UK motorists surveyed said they have been distracted from safe driving while operating in-car controls - although What Car? points out that these distractions are not limited solely to touchscreen interfaces, which are used by more than one-in-seven drivers.

When the respondents with voice control tech in their cars were asked why they prefer using it over touchscreens, safety and not having to take their eyes off the road were cited as the main reasons, with many complaining that they found it difficult to press the correct icons on a display screen without looking.

With Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Hey Google used more than ever, motorists are increasingly turning to spoken-word technology, according to What Car?, which has put the latest voice control systems to the test.

It tested 20 new models sold in showrooms right now and timed how long it took to perform commonly-used sat-nav, air-conditioning and radio-related tasks using both voice control and touchscreens. 

It found that a competent voice control system beats a touchscreen hand down in reducing distraction while at the wheel, because the driver doesn’t have to look away from the road at all.

However, not all voice control systems are equal, and nearly three in five users (58 per cent) told us they had experienced problems with a voice control system not understanding a command.

The best systems, such as BMW’s iDrive, Renault’s OpenR and Volvo’s Google Built-in, give the driver a number of ways of accessing frequently used functions. This means they can enter a postcode into the sat-nav using the touchscreen when parked, and then use voice control to change the destination if plans alter on-route.

The worst are systems built into current Vauxhall and Suzuki models, the study found. 

What Car? Consumer Editor, Claire Evans, said there is a real gulf in the market in terms of operating systems.

'BMW’s iDrive system was the clear leader in both our tests of voice control and physical or touchscreen controls. It was proof that quick responses to natural-language commands is key to quickly – and safely – performing operations without taking your eyes off the road,' she explained.