The modern car has a problem. Over the past decade, automakers have raced to offer their smartphone-addled customers a bonanza of features: navigation, texting, phone calls, satellite radio, Bluetooth, ways to check tire pressure and oil temperature, suspension settings, charging status, and more. Then they try to stick all those things into an interface whose users are usually pretty busy—driving the 2-ton metal boxes that kill nearly 40,000 people in the US every year.
And the solutions are non-obvious. Touchscreens are easy to use but take drivers’ eyes off the road. Knob-based systems can land you in a warren of menus that get frustrating and distracting. No wonder then, that in a 2017 study, Consumer Reports found just 44 percent of respondents were “very satisfied” with their car’s infotainment system. Among the systems CR deemed the most distracting was Acura’s, which it panned for a “frustrating dual-screen setup, convoluted display logic, and finicky voice-command system.”
Now, after four years of work, Acura has a solution that finds that elusive territory between usefulness and distraction. Starting later this year with the 2019 RDX SUV, Acura will offer the True Touchpad.
Engineer Ross Miller, who led the project, began by talking to people about their washing machines and television remotes. “People get really passionate about things that annoy them.” At the top of that list of annoyances is complexity. Too many buttons, too many options, too many menus.
Miller frames this as a resource management problem. When you’re driving, you can only spare so much of your cortex to figuring out how to turn on that podcast or punch in Auntie’s address. To minimize the time and effort required by the driver, Acura’s team stripped down the main interface to eight tiles, which you can configure however you like. This way, the home screen doesn’t just offer you categories, like “Audio” and “Phone Book,” but shows whatever you tend to look for most often. People being creatures of habit, that usually means a couple of radio stations and one or two contacts. In Acura’s new system, your home screen can offer you “John” and “Jane,” “90s on 9” and “Hair Nation.” All your faves, just a tap away.
That tap is where Acura’s real innovation comes in. Miller says touchscreens draw too much attention away from the road, and knob- and button-based systems can be clunky and hard to use. To control the 10.2-inch screen, his team made a new sort of touchpad. Say you want to hear some sweet Mötley Crüe, and Hair Nation is the tile in the upper right of the screen. Just put your finger on the upper right of the touchpad, which sits a few inches forward of the right armrest. If you landed a bit to the left, drag your finger over, see the flash of orange highlight the icon you’re going for, and press down. (Then crank the volume using one of the few knobs.)
Other cars with touchpads use them in the conventional way, to control a cursor on the screen. The problem there is that, just like on your computer, before doing anything you have to find the cursor, then move it to where you need it. In a situation where every instant with your eyes off the road can prove deadly, that kind of timesuck is not ideal.
Meanwhile, touchscreens come with their own problem: The fact that you need to reach them means they’re usually low down, where the radio in an old-timey car would be. And because competently using one requires looking at it, that’s even more time looking away from where you’re going.
Acura’s system is a hybrid of the two. The touchpad allows for a screen up high on the dash, so you can see it with just a flick of the eyes. But instead of letting you control a cursor, it acts like a voodoo doll for the screen: Whatever part of the screen you would tap, you tap that part of the pad.
After a lifetime using a mouse and a decade with touchscreen smartphones and tablets, it took me a bit of getting used to. But within half an hour it felt totally intuitive. A spot to rest the heel of your hand and the raised ridge outlining the pad help with orientation. Real buttons for Home and Back, which Miller calls “centering points,” make sure you never get too lost. (Abandoned concepts: a cursor-like “ghost finger” on the screen representing where the driver’s finger was in real life, and gesture controls. “That didn’t test so well,” Miller says. “It was too complicated; it was really hard to learn.”)
Eventually, the team built the system into a driving simulator and put 30 people behind the wheel. While each performed a series of tasks (call so and so, switch the radio, etc.), Acura’s engineers measured how well they stayed in their lane and away from other cars, to gauge their level of distraction. They compared the results to how those same people drove when performing a simple task, like turning a knob to tune the radio, and found no significant difference.
To go with its new interface, Acura added an improved, more natural voice recognition system and an optional head-up display that’s more capable than most on the market. Where most just show information like speed and navigation directions, this one lets you change where you’re going and make phone calls, using a knurled click wheel on the steering wheel.
Now, Acura drivers get to try it for real. And if they like it as much as the focus groups did, you can expect to see it in the rest of the Acura lineup before long—then maybe the rest of the auto industry.