Rhodri Marsden: The conflicted reality of the 'digital dashboard' is driving me crazy

  • @rhodri

While I was on holiday in Sydney last September, I got into a taxi with a dashboard festooned with five mobile devices, hanging off a variety of mounts, and all presumably providing critical information to the driver.

I was perturbed by his distracted driving, and not particularly surprised when he took a wrong turn and we ended up having to unnecessarily navigate a lengthy one-way system.

The combined processing power of these five gadgets had failed to take me where I wanted to go, but did a fantastic job of playing music, displaying the temperature, handling calls, calculating spurious statistics and lining up the driver's next fare. Unfortunately, it was – to use Aussie parlance – bloody dangerous.

Bestowing internet access upon drivers always feels slightly troubling, even for someone like me who normally derives great pleasure from being over-connected. If you've seen Werner Herzog's harrowing film about the perils of using mobile phones while driving, then you might be as sensitive to this issue as I am. Whenever I read about the so-called "digital dashboard", my instinct is to question the purpose of shoehorning this stuff into cars at all.

If the car is becoming another internet-connected device, the dashboard has the capacity to become as multi-faceted and fascinating as a phone or tablet. But at the moment, there's a very real conflict between functionality and safety. More is less. Less is more.

Google has teamed up with GM, Audi, Hyundai, Nvidia and Honda to form the Open Automotive Alliance, which aims to bring Google's Android OS to cars. Last summer, Apple announced its iOS in the Car, a bridge between mobile devices and cars, which we should also see rolling out this year. Last month, Chevrolet announced an App Shop, which adds a range of touch-screen options to its iLink in-car system – but while efforts are being made to enhance the driving experience with extra features and new things to prod and stare at, various "car mode" apps for iOS and Android are trying to take them away by simplifying phone screens to three or four buttons. At the end of last year, American designer Joey Cofone came up with a car mode concept for iOS phones, to dissuade drivers from fiddling; it would work like airplane mode, disabling every feature except hands-free calls and satnav – but you sense that any OS designer would be reluctant to hobble their devices in this way unless they're legally obliged to.

The problem boils down to the difficulty of prodding a precise area on a screen with a finger while avoiding prangs, accidents or worse. I just criticised a particular Australian cabbie for it, but you see this kind of thing all the time – drivers skipping songs, acknowledging messages, finding alternative routes – and it's clear that until we can trust voice-operated systems such as Apple's Siri Eyes Free to take complete control of dashboard devices without us having to touch them, there are going to be risks associated with their use.

Cutting-edge technology in expensive cars might address some of the safety issues, but most tech behind the wheel is sitting in a mount and masquerading as hands-free when, in fact, it's anything but. I'd be tempted to let the car become, with the exception of a dumb satnav, a digital-free zone – that is, until driverless cars take over and we can safely fiddle with our phones for the entire journey (while grudgingly acknowledging how much better they are at getting us from A to B).