It's time for a revolution in car audio and electronics

Drive me crazy: A touchscreen interface is no way for a civilized person to use an audio system while driving.

Why are so many car interfaces so bad?

I don’t mean the gas pedal, brake, steering wheel, turn signals, and so on—these things are universal, and they haven’t changed much in the last half century. No, I’m talking about all those extra bells and whistles that car manufacturers insist on shoehorning into every available inch: navigation systems, multi CD-changer/satellite radio/media interface/DVD-watching entertainment centers—you know what I mean.

You sit down in a rental, ZipCar, or friend’s vehicle, and are more often than not confronted by an obtuse set of dials, knobs, sliders, and—increasingly popular and the worst of them all—a touchscreen.

Simply put, the interfaces most cars provide lack elegance or any indication that the people building them have actually spent time using them in a running vehicle. I say this as someone who was recently in the market to buy a car, and ended up purchasing a 2012 Volkswagen GTI.

The poor usability of the electronics and media system in the GTI stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the car, which is otherwise very well-designed. There’s a clear focus on usability that is reminiscent of Apple’s work, and something that you don’t find on a lot of other automobiles. Climate controls are easy to use and even, dare I say, attractive, and there are plenty of little niceties like a glove compartment that has an air conditioner vent in it, a trunk organizer for storing tools and other accessories, and a sunroof with variable levels of control. Even Volkswagen’s key fob is cleverly designed, as it includes the key as a spring-loaded part of the fob itself.

But the audio system—as I understand it, it is mostly shoved in whole cloth by its OEM, Panasonic—doesn’t really meet the same level of quality. And that’s what has me questioning the whole “attention to detail” aspect of car interfaces.

Fair warning: This is based on my own personal experiences, largely with my GTI. There are probably some car interfaces that aren’t terrible. Frankly, I’d love to hear more about them, so sound off in the comments.

Bad touch

I firmly believe that whoever first thought it was a good idea to put a touchscreen in a car should be dragged behind a truck, Indiana Jones-style. Sure, we’re all used to touchscreens these days: our phones and tablets have them, as do the ticket kiosks at the airport, ATMs, and even directories at some malls.

While touchscreens are handy for letting you create a variety of different user interfaces without having to invest in costly physical controls, and are easy enough to use when the task at hand has the user’s full attention (as at an ATM or ticket kiosk) the last thing that you—and in all likelihood, your passengers—want is an interface that requires you, the driver, to take your eyes off the road.

It’s bad enough when the touchscreen only controls the audio system, but far worse if—as in my parents’ Toyota Prius—it’s also how you adjust the climate controls. Fortunately, many cars also provide actual physical controls mounted on the steering wheel, which mitigates this to a certain extent, but even just having a giant screen in the middle of your dashboard is, for many, already an enormous distraction.

Button, button: At least the steering wheel still has tactile buttons. For now.

I appreciate the physical buttons on my GTI’s steering wheel, which let me control volume and skip back and forth between tracks, but the lack of any tactile control for playing or pausing music (short of turning the stereo off), is irritating. Turning the volume all the way down is sometimes an acceptable alternative, but it’s frustrating in cases where I don’t want to miss the audio that’s playing.

Interface interference

Touchscreens are only part of the problem, though. Most audio interfaces these days share the same heritage, following the lineage of the tape deck to the CD player to the MP3 player. Given that the iPod has been around for more than a decade, you’d think that the companies making this equipment would have at least a basic blueprint of how not to screw things up. Yet they seem almost gleefully oblivious to convention.

For example, we’ve all used shuffle mode since what seems like time immemorial. The idea is consistent: Your library is shuffled into a randomized playlist. If you hit next track, you hear a random song—but you can go in reverse to hear the previous songs. So, if you flip past a song, and then change your mind and decide you really did want to listen to it, you can hit the previous track button and go back to it.

Only, the audio unit in my Volkswagen doesn’t do that. When I hit previous song to go back to the one I just skipped over, it takes me back to a different random song. Essentially, each song is an island in a sea of randomness. Which is like walking through a city you’ve never been through before, then turning around and realizing that the way you came has changed entirely. To me that sounds less like using an audio interface and more like Inception.

Dead sea scroll: Because 1980s scrollbars are really the best way to navigate a library of more than four thousand songs.

The interface isn’t much better when it comes to actually picking the songs I want to listen to. It's gracious enough to provide options for browsing playlists, albums, artists, songs, and so on, but you have to navigate each of these lists with a touchscreen scrollbar reminiscent of a classic DOS application interface. For those keeping score at home, this is possibly the single worst way to force a driver to pick a song, short of having them write the name of a song on a piece of paper, feed it into a scanner, then correct the inevitable typos produced by OCR software. All while driving.

Worse, there’s no way to accomplish this music selection task with the non-touchscreen controls. At one point, my eyes alit upon the stereo’s Tune knob, which defaults to acting like previous and next track buttons. (Why? Why not!?) Maybe the designers were more clever than I’d given them credit for and I could use that knob to quickly scrub through a list of songs and select one, à la a scroll wheel... but the stereo doesn’t do that, because that would make sense.

Add to that a few other random glitches: In Bluetooth mode, the song’s progress bar doesn’t correctly reflect where you are in a song, so when the next song comes on, it looks like you’re already halfway through it. When you select a song from the interface, the system leaves you sitting at the selection menu, instead of taking you back to the song that’s currently playing. Sometimes the time elapsed/time remaining counters jump multiple seconds at a time, which makes you feel like you’re edging towards 88 miles per hour in a DeLorean.

There’s also, somewhat perplexingly, a Scan mode for the media player. Much as on some old CD players or your car’s AM/FM radio, Scan plays a few seconds of a song, then skips to the next one. Presumably, the point is to let it get to a song you want to hear, and then to turn Scan mode off. Honestly, this seems like a solution in search of a problem. Isn’t it just easier to keep pressing the next track button until you hear a song you want to listen to? Scan mode can only be activated or deactivated via the touchscreen, whereas I can skip tracks from my steering wheel buttons. Why, in the name of all that is good in the world, would I ever use this feature?

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