My wife’s 10-year-old car has an expensive built-in navigation system, but anytime she drives out of Portland, she uses Waze on her iPhone. Besides being free, this “social driving” app (now owned by Google) is dramatically smarter and more useful than anything her Lexus offers, and proves its worth regularly, as it did when helping us route around a 30-minute traffic jam last month, on our way back from the Oregon coast. The dark screen of the car’s nav system makes a fine backrest for the phone, while Waze gleefully chimes in with accurate, crowdsourced traffic updates over the sound system via Bluetooth.
For all its utility, this is clearly not an ideal situation: It’s redundant, and the interface is far from optimal, or even entirely safe. Recent government regulation efforts are attempting to bring mobile use in cars under some kind of control, but ultimately it’s not a legislative problem. It’s a design problem.
Instead of trying to legislate this kind of behavior away, or pretending it doesn’t happen in the first place, we need to figure out how to make it work, safely and effectively. For interaction and user experience designers, this is a familiar problem of designing for context, except in this case, the context is a car.
Waze is already taking steps of its own to encourage safer use, warning drivers to not use the touch UI when the phone is in motion and–crucially–offering a voice interface instead. Newer aftermarket head units in cars, like those from Pioneer and Alpine, already allow voice control of all major phone activities over Bluetooth, including calling, answering and text messaging. Soon we’ll reach the point where our smartphones can push their screens wirelessly to large format in-car screens, custom-designed for rapid access and low distraction, and integrated with steering wheel controls. Two years from now, I expect technology that makes all of this to look quaint. Designing and developing for smartphones, after all, is far easier than it is for cars, which is why all the interesting things happen there.