UX Fail – Are Safety-Minded UIs Making Cars Less Safe?

Car rental companies provide a convenient way for drivers to experience new vehicles, including the plethora of fancy features that modern-day technology provides. I recently got to experience the new 2013 Toyota Sienna LE Minivan for a whole week with my wife and 2 kids. (Although, this vehicle has nothing “mini” about it; it has 3 rows of seats and fits 7-8 passengers pretty comfortably.)


In the gadgets realm, the Sienna is not short of features at all. It features separate climate control zones for the driver, front passenger, and rear of the vehicle. It also boasts a rear-view camera, a nice-sounding stereo with XM, and wired and wireless connectivity (via Bluetooth). Not to mention a voice-actuated system to allow hands-free control of all of many of these gadgets to without having to press, well, more than one button.

Sounds great, right?… WRONG!

The quirky placement and behavior of controls left much to be desired about the user-experience that this box of gadgets presents to its passengers. With the plethora of features that have come to fruition over the recent years, automobile manufacturers have been struggling to get these features integrated to stay up-to-par with the competition. The user interface (UI) and corresponding user experience (UX) are suffering because they’re trying to simultaneously meet safety requirements that are at odds with providing an intuitive and enjoyable user-experience. Let me elaborate.

Bluetooth! Content without Cables…

The first major annoyance we experienced was trying to pair our iPhones with the stereo via Bluetooth. Alhough adjusting the audio settings (such as bass, treble, pan and fader) was nicely integrated into the stereo’s UI, the bluetooth pairing and device selection made me want to take a hammer to this beast!

Once we fumbled with the buttons on the stereo a bit, we got it into pairing mode and gave it a shot… fail! The nice lady’s voice told us that no additional devices could be paired. I’m guessing Toyota thought that the rental company would know to clear our device pairings every time someone returns it. Grrrr….

After more fumbling, and I finally figured out how to delete a couple of pairing profiles so that we could finally pair our iPhones and get rolling. The pairing process required a vocal audio snippet to be recorded for each paired device, even though the device name was registered. This was apparently required for the fancy hands-free voice-recognition system.

Providing wireless connectivity to media devices is necessary, though Bluetooth pairing and device selection has commonly been a problem with UX in this realm. This is largely due to inconsistencies in implementation and poor/non-standard methods to be able to switch from one device to another. In this particular case, utilizing the full UI of the stereo (such as soft-assignable buttons) would allow easier and more consistency with how the rest of the system works.

Voice-recognition/Hands-free Operation to the Rescue! Well, maybe not.

After a bit more fumbling, cussing, and experimental button presses, we finally got my wife’s phone paired and playing music. So we hit the road to head to our next destination.

An hour into the drive, we wanted to change the stereo to be paired with my phone instead of my wife’s. More cussing ensued as my wife pressed the “Aux” button switch to my phone. After a couple of very loud and annoying beeps that woke up our kids sleeping peacefully in the back, the nice lady came on the horn again and said, “This feature is locked out while the vehicle is in motion!”

What?!? By “locked out” she really meant it. We couldn’t even escape from the menu to just get it back to using my wife’s phone. Every time we tried another escape route, the piercing beeps and nice lady’s voice reminded us of our dilemma.

I tried to use the fancy voice recognition system, since the hands-free interface was supposed to save our lives by not letting us press any buttons. I struggled to remember the exact phrase I used when pairing, and after a few tries and more annoying messages and beeps, and subsequent cussing the hell out of this system, and missing an exit while we were arguing with how to get some music playing again, and let our girls get back to sleep, we set out to find a place to pull over and sort things out.

Poor UX leads to frustration and dangerous distractions. When a driver is forced to use a poorly designed and non-intuitive hands-free system while driving, safety is dangerously threatened.

Design Matters

A core problem here is that new gadgets and features are being added all the time, but the engineers that need to integrate their control into the vehicle’s user interface just can’t keep up. Consistency and intuitive design is sorely lacking and taking a toll on the sanity and, more importantly, the safety of the driver and passengers.

When will the industry and the lawyers involved with slapping lawsuits on these companies wake up and realize the UX and safety initiatives are not mutually exclusive?!? A frustrated user exploring the plethora of buttons, displays, gadgets, and poor voice recognition with a very specific vocabulary is definitely a major safety issue!

Hopefully the co-design of UX/UI and safety initiatives will become standard in the near future, so that we can get back to focusing on… DRIVING!


  • Thomas Eyde says:

    I own a 4 year old Prius with a nice stereo including a 6 disc CD player. The CD player provides a nice, selectable playlist, which is inconveniently disabled once the car is moving.

    The explanation is safety. You shouldn’t fiddle with the CD player while driving. Surely, the engineers / designers can’t have tested the feature, or maybe they’re afraid of being sued in the US.

    The tragedy is that now I’m left with the less safer option, which is to step one song ahead, listen if that’s the one I want, then step to the next one. This procedure takes a considerable time and redirects my concentration away from driving.

    Adding insult to injury, the radio has six predefined stations arranged in a similar selectable list. Which, for some reason, is not disabled while driving.

    These days, I don’t use the CD player anymore, as it’s easier to plug in my phone to the aux port.

    • Thomas,

      Yeah… preaching to the choir… ;) But please continue to do so. The thing that the Automotive manufacturers are blind to, is the fact that drivers/passengers are using their “fancy” poorly designed stereo systems as a glorified wired/wireless input jack to the vehicle sound system. :P

      In effect… this is slowly killing the desire to even use their “infotainment” crap-traptions that are really threatening safety much more than increasing it.

      I am a SW/FW developer bashing poor UI/UX in this regard. Coincidentally, my co-worker, Brittany Hunter just unleashed an excellent post on the exact same lines… but being a Designer, has much better graphics/annotation. ;)

      Thanks for the comment!

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