With many cars now coming loaded with electronic features, we're increasingly seeing control systems in our test cars that are overly complicated and distracting, requiring you to take your eyes and attention off of the road for far too long.
Many upscale vehicles now use an in-dash display and a joysticklike multifunction controller knob. The knob lets a driver control the functions for each separate system (such as audio, climate control, and navigation) through one input device, which is intended to simplify things by reducing the number of dash buttons. But those systems often require you to look down at the center console to find the button you want and wade through complex onscreen menus to perform even simple functions. (See One step becomes six below.) Other systems lack regular buttons and knobs altogether, substituting touch screens and touch-sensitive buttons that don't offer tactile feedback.
Some of the most challenging systems we've experienced have been in models using Audi's MMI (Multi Media Interface), BMW's iDrive, and Ford's MyFord Touch (or MyLincoln Touch). But we've also found complicated controls in some Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, and Mini models.
We urge automakers to remember that common functions demand simple, direct controls. Voice control can help, but it's not always reliable. And it's no excuse for overcomplicating what should be straightforward functions.
The cluttered layout and small type on the MyFord Touch display, above, make the buttons hard to identify quickly, requiring more time and attention. In addition, functions in the corners aren't clearly labeled. And the buttons can be sluggish to respond. Ford plans to improve the interface.
Chrysler's Uconnect screen, top, is less cluttered and uses larger type and easy-to-read diagrams of various functions to make the system easier to use. The screen also responds more quickly to inputs.
Some complicated control systems can require five or six steps to do something that in other cars requires only pressing a button. Here we show the number of steps required to perform a common function as well as the time it took for our human-factors engineer, who is familiar with the systems, to go through the steps with the car parked. It could take much longer for a less-experienced user to perform the steps while driving.
Selecting a radio station preset
Five steps and 5 seconds
On most cars, you only need to press the preset button that was used to save the desired radio station. But on the Equus you need to use voice commands or wade through five steps using the multifunction controller.
Manually tuning the radio to a station's frequency
Six steps and 10 seconds
Instead of simply turning a tuning knob to the station's frequency, with the iDrive system in the 2011 BMW 750i you must use a voice command or take up to six steps to do it with the multifunction controller.
The task Playing music on an iPod (or other device) through the USB port
Six steps and 11 seconds
On many models, all you need to do after plugging in your iPod is press the audio system's AUX button. With the Focus, even though it also has an AUX button, the only alternative to using a voice command is a six-step process with the radio's hard keys.