One of the most significant problems facing the automotive industry is the issue of driver distraction. Text messaging was considered to be the primary source of driver distraction for many years. However, studies have shown that in-vehicle touchscreens are more detrimental to driver reaction times than text messaging. A driver operating a touch screen experiences all three categories of distraction defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): visual, manual, and cognitive. The result is more eyes-off-the-road time than is deemed acceptable by NHTSA guidelines.

The primary solution to the ongoing driver distraction problem is a strategic multimodal approach to the in-vehicle user interface. A safe and accessible user experience (UX) will leverage a combination of operational modes, from physical buttons and haptic feedback to voice and gesture recognition, to minimize driver distraction without compromising performance or experience.

A strategic multimodal operation to reduce driver distraction.

At the current stage of automotive user interface (UX) development, restricting the addition of more technology is neither plausible nor realistic. Users expect their vehicles to be computers on wheels, offering the same features as their smartphones.

In absence of a strategic approach, simply adding more and more technology results in a needlessly complex user interface. UX innovations must be leveraged to design a system that is user-friendly, can be learned quickly, and offers the shortest possible operation sequence for any in-vehicle task. Achieving these three objectives requires a strategic combination of traditional mechanisms and modern technology.

A multimodal approach allows for an optimized UX by pairing different modes of operation with appropriately corresponding functions of the vehicle cockpit and infotainment system.

Touchscreens, Displays, & Driver Warnings

There are many opportunities to improve touch screens and displays to reduce driver distraction. This starts with basic interface adjustments: reducing the number of menu levels, simplifying operation sequences, and minimizing visual information.

Another key improvement is the response time of touch screens. Predictive touch screens—also called proximity sensing solutions—use dedicated sensors to track the finger movements of users, precisely predict the button they want to operate, and recognize that intention as a touch input. This reduces touch input latency and, in turn, overall off-the-road time.

Some vehicles already feature head-up displays (HUDs) that project graphics onto a tiny area of the windshield, allowing the driver to view vital information, such as vehicle speed, warnings, and navigation signals, without taking their eyes off the road. In the coming years, mature augmented reality (AR) HUDs will go one step further and overlay virtual images at multiple focal distances. Augmenting real road situations with visual cues will significantly improve situational awareness.

Display screens on the passenger side of the vehicle can also be optimized to reduce driver distraction. The viewing angle and illumination level of the passenger display can be altered so as not to catch the driver’s eye. Additionally, camera-based display locking solutions can automatically dim passenger displays by detecting when the driver is looking toward it.

Voice & Audio

While voice recognition and audio alert features are already in use, there is opportunity to optimize these functions. Early variants of these systems required initial manual activation via a push-to-talk button. A simple “wake word” allows the driver to engage the system without removing their eyes from the road. Voice control may be used for functions that are grammatically simple and easy for the driver to communicate verbally. If the vehicle provides an audio response, the driver has no need to shift their eyes to a screen to confirm comprehension.

The vehicle may also communicate warnings and alarms to the driver via audio alerts rather than on-screen notices, further reducing visual distraction.


A gesture is a physical input mode. A manual gesture performed within a designated area l is efficient for simple commands, such as adjusting the volume or temperature or opening the sunroof. Mature gesture recognition technology will be able to discern the difference between a true command and the unrelated movement of a restless child or other passenger.

Physical Buttons & Knobs

A study conducted by Vi Bilägare has proven that physical buttons and knobs outperform touchscreens in terms of muscle memory and gaze-free operation. Some automotive OEMs have already reintroduced these physical mechanisms to allow drivers to access frequently used features without taking their eyes off the road.

Haptic Feedback

Haptic solutions can be deployed throughout the vehicle to communicate an array of messages, such as warnings and spatial signals, without requiring the driver to shift their gaze to a visual display. Haptic functionality may be added to steering wheels, dashboards, seatbelts, pedals, and visual displays. A driver using the touchscreen to select music may glance at the screen to confirm that the system has registered the touch. The compulsion to look away from the road could be removed by a brief interval of haptic feedback that would confirm that the function had been enabled.

An innovative blend of these and other operational modes is critical for designing an accessible in-vehicle UX that will decrease driver distraction. The merits of each mode are compounded when used strategically in concert.

Proper performance while in motion is critical.

Modern vehicles have more features than their predecessors. Geolocation tracking and smartphone integrations, such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, have ceased to be luxury features and are now considered essential functions. These additional features have the potential to reduce driver distraction if deployed properly, but underperformance and operational ambiguity can work to exacerbate the driver distraction problem.

If a driver is listening to music and wishes to change or skip tracks while in motion, a simple command to the vehicle’s voice assistance program is much easier than seeking a manual control on the touchscreen. There is no need for the driver to remove their eyes from the road. However, if the voice assistance function fails to recognize or correctly execute a command, the driver may become distracted. They may turn their attention entirely to the touchscreen and attempt to diagnose or solve the problem while the vehicle is still in motion.

Accessibility and ease of use must be considered at every step of the development process to ensure that each function performs as desired and does not detract from the goal of reducing driver distraction.

Reducing driver distraction requires a nuanced understanding of automotive technology and UX.

Industry forecasts have identified the 2040s as the earliest period at which autonomous driving technology becomes mature and affordable enough to penetrate the market. Until autonomous vehicles become commonplace, reducing driver distraction must remain a topmost priority for automotive industry leaders. With automotive technology and consumer expectations evolving at a rapid pace, automotive OEMs must take a multidisciplinary approach to finding a solution that balances human nature and technological advancements.

Quest Global has two decades of experience providing direct support to automotive OEMs seeking to improve every part of the vehicle, and is recognized by standard-setting bodies and industry associations as a global leader in the automotive market. Our automotive engineers have a deep understanding of the nuances of the automotive ecosystem, the many integrated technologies found within a single vehicle, and how those technologies have evolved and matured over time. Our automotive centers of excellence are designed and staffed around our primary objective of developing exceptional technologies that improve every part of the driving experiences and serve the needs and desires of the end user.

Our partners rely on our intimate knowledge of the entire vehicle, from connectivity to structural design to manufacturing, to help them create a seamless union between digital and mechanical excellence. We are committed to delivering exceptional solutions that create a safe and intuitive passenger experience which make our customers stand out in the competitive automotive marketplace.

Written by Divya M S

on 09 Feb 2023

Senior Technical Architect

Quest Global