The only difference now is that the evidence on the effects that glowing screens have on automotive safety is overwhelming. In 2017, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that performing tasks on a car’s screen took a driver’s attention away from the road for more than 40 seconds. (A thorough rundown of the safety issues can be found here.) With traffic fatalities spiking over the past few years and with no real plan for how to make screens less distracting, we seem to have entered into the type of brutal acquiescence that’s common in the tech era — car manufacturers will keep putting bigger and more complicated screens in cars without much thought to safety or even functionality, and we, the consumers, will continue to buy them.
This process in which tech proliferates for no particularly good reason has been described, in part, by the writer Evgeny Morozov in his treatises on “solutionism,” which he defines as “an intellectual pathology that recognizes problems as problems based on just one criterion: whether they are ‘solvable’ with a nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” Corporations, buoyed by competition, will sometimes even invent problems that don’t exist, in this case the lack of a giant screen that more or less mirrors your phone.
There is no justification for the switch from knobs, switches and buttons to touch screens. We have been conditioned, in part by Apple’s iPhone design aesthetics, to believe that every product will inevitably follow an evolution chart from what it is today to its eventual end as a flat, glowing screen that plays episodes of “Ted Lasso” on demand. Once the screen, itself, has become normalized and mostly runs out of ways to improve, the next move is just to make it bigger. The new Cadillac Lyriq, for example, comes with a 33-inch touch screen, which is significantly larger than the televisions most of us grew up watching.
The incentives of carmakers are pretty clear: Touch screens are cheaper than designing and installing a mechanical panel. And given that most cars today are reliable, come with lengthy warranties and an array of mostly uniform features, a big screen becomes a way for a car brand to distinguish itself from its competitors, especially on the showroom floor before potential buyers have a chance to really immerse themselves in just how annoying the screen will be.
I can think of no better way of describing the frustration of the modern consumer than buying a car with a feature that makes you less safe, doesn’t improve your driving experience in any meaningful way, saves the manufacturer money and gets sold to you as some necessary advance in “connectivity” because it links you to all the other useless things you do every day on your phone.
We might not be able to stop car manufacturers from installing these increasingly gigantic screens, but I would like to present a solution to the only real “problem” that these giant screens solved: How do you watch your maps app while driving? Buy one of those $9 stands that affixes itself to the dashboard of your car and put your phone in it. That way, you can turn on your maps app while driving and keep it at eye level.