The Car is Much More Than a “Smartphone on Wheels”

10 Important Differences Between Using a Car and Mobile Phone.

Steve Pepple
5 min readSep 18, 2013

The car was once the ultimate mobile machine, but now it must change. The message to the auto industry: Consumers find automobiles boring, while always-connected mobile devices are the new objects of desire. Indeed, mobile devices are overtaking the driving experience, despite the sometimes tragic consequences. In response, carmakers have proposed a giant “smartphone on wheels.”

I agree that many smartphone apps like Google Now and Waze hold great potential in the car. Yet the latest car infotainment systems, including “Apple in the Car,” only tweak experiences designed for your pocket. I worry that merely copying smartphone features to the car, misses the broader promise of smart, connected, and user-centered cars.

The following are 10 reasons why car mobility is different and why drivers deserve a better experience.

1. Drivers’ eyes and hands must be devoted to driving

Driver attention should not be divided. Alas, most of us will not enjoy self-driving cars any time soon, so cars must be designed to reduce the time when the driver’s hands are off the wheel and eyes are off the road. A driver should not be looking at an in-car display for more than an instant. Similarly, voice- and gesture- controlled systems can require too much of the driver’s attention.

2. Using a mobile system is always a secondary task

Because the driver’s hands, feet, and brain should all be devoted to driving, any other activities— namely interacting with the car dashboard— are strictly of secondary importance. At high speeds and in unexpected situations, information in heads-up displays (HUDs) and auditory interfaces can demand too much of the driver’s attention. Notifications and alerts might catch the driver’s attention, but they cannot pinpoint a real world incident as well at the driver’s vision.

3. When not driving, people do not use car software

While some of us are a little weird and like to eat lunch or watch movies in the car, most people spend little time in their car when they are not driving. This raises a problem: If managing the mobile ecosystem of Apps and updates on your phone is already an annoyance, how is this going to work for your car. I can guarantee you that system and App updates will arrive at the most inopportune times.

4. People buy a new phone every year, but not a new car

Android and iOS in the car will provide more frequent software updates, but car technologies will always lag behind smartphones and other mobile technologies. Consider current in-car user interfaces, notably luxury Audi and BMW systems. They still work like PDAs of the 1990's, with drill-down menus and handwriting recognition. Such technology quickly becomes cumbersome and outdated.

Audi A8 MMI Touch system.

5. The car itself is already a mobile device

A somewhat obvious point is that cars are mobile in two ways:

  • They provide physical mobility—they move and act as an interface to cities and transportation systems like the highway.
  • And they provide “personal mobility,” e.g. access to the Internet. (Smartphones and the Internet have provided this personal mobility to teens, for example, the freedom to communicate with their friends whenever they want—just as cars do.)

6. Driving is not an open-ended activity

Smartphone experiences are often immersive and open-ended. Conversely, using a car is highly directional and goal-directed. That is, the driver needs to go from point A to point B. Therefore, the most important secondary task of the driver is to navigate. For casual drives with an inexact destination and arival time, I expect that drivers will favor the traditional driving experience.

7. Drivers are less familiar with interactive systems

Interactive interfaces in cars are very new and many interactive experiences will never translate well to driving. By the book, systems such as GPS and OnStar are to be used only when the vehicle is at rest. The most prominent communication technology in cars is the radio, a one-way, broadcast medium.

8. Driving and reading do not go together

Beyond voice-controlled systems, the trend in mobile systems like Windows 8—and now iOS 7— is content- and text- driven interfaces. It’s difficult and dangerous to read and drive at the same time, not to mention interact with more rich media. Take Twitter, for example: While a 140 character Tweet seems terse, Department of Transportation guidelines prohibit the presentation of more than 30 characters at a time.

9. The car is a very complex mobile device

Smartphones are complex products, but they are simple to use. Smartphones are great for downtime: When your friend is ordering a coffee or while you are waiting for the bus. Still these devices also request our attention at inopportune times, like during an important meeting or a movie or while we are sleeping. If smartphones have a Do Not Disturb feature for when the user is busy, then cars most certainly need one.(Indeed, Ford is working on such a feature.)

The basic mechanics of how to operate a car haven't change much in 100 years, Yet, over the last 50 years, cars have been outfitted with hundreds of digital components. Some of the information generated by these computers is quite useful to drivers, but most of it is just noise. More rich user interfaces in the car may improve the driving experience, but this also risks making the car much more complex and challenging to operate.

10. Poor car design leads to catastrophic user error

One final, important point. User error in automobiles causes severe economic damage and personal injury, including death. Intelligent, connected, automated vehicles will help reduce these risk. Yet, in the foreseeable future, the design of cars requires special care and attention to driver safety.

Both cars and smartphones provide us with amazing personal freedom and it’s no surprise why people will demand more powerful Apps and features in their cars. My point in underscoring these differences is that we should have even greater expectations for our transportation experiences and products. With thoughtful and restrained design, driving can be more safe, more convenient, and more mobile.



Steve Pepple

Co-founder of Vibemap. I write about data, cities, transit, and local government.