Distracted driving is a big problem, especially with all the amazing things modern cars can do. Fully digital controls via touchscreens and capacitive keys aren’t the answer, because we need to see the road, and physical feedback helps us do that. On the other hand, old-fashioned buttons aren’t enough to navigate the complexities of modern infotainment systems. Coherence is necessary, and each automaker has its own school of thought about where the right balance should be. Mazda is wrong.
I recently had the privilege of driving a Mazda3 Turbo daily for a week. It was a great experience that I will expand on in an upcoming review. However, one of the downsides – that I know of – is the infotainment system interface. It’s a dial, located between the gear selector and the center console.
The most recent Mazda that I drove before these 3 Hatch was a 2021 Miata RF. That passerby also has a dial, but it But also with touch screen. The display only responds to touch when the vehicle is not moving; all other times you have to use knob. I was expecting the same from these 3, but it’s actually worse – the control panel isn’t touch-sensitive at all, so the gyroscope is really all you get.
This isn’t great for Mazda’s user interface, as it only consists of vertically scrolling lists that you can navigate between by moving the wheel left or right. In those cases, the dial works very well. But if you prefer using CarPlay or Android Auto – and who doesn’t – everything falls apart.
Mazda’s rationale for this interface design is predictable. If you take your right hand off the steering wheel to reach across the front seats and toward the screen, it’s nearly impossible not to apply some inadvertent force to your left hand that’s still holding the wheel. You also have to take your eyes off the road and the screen. It’s always inevitable, but at least Mazda’s way that you won’t have to approach. It’s more comfortable if you put your hand on a dial and quickly shift your focus from the screen to the panel and back – your eyes are good – instead of having to look away and move your body at the same time. I got it.
The point is that the only user experience that benefits from this mindset is Mazda’s, because Mazda has clearly designed it for it. Using a dial to navigate something like CarPlay is obviously to the touch not only annoying or inconvenient, but unsafe.
Software made for touch doesn’t have to sort everything on a list. CarPlay’s home screen has app icons arranged in a grid; it also has a continuous vertical sidebar on the left with recent apps. Lists are used only when they make sense, such as in a music player like Spotify.
At one point while behind the wheel of a Mazda3, I was listening to Apple Music and needed to scroll down from the top of the list to one of the items near the bottom. Halfway through the list is a horizontal the sort bar of recently played albums, like five or six of them. If Mazda had just let me touch the dashboard, I would have been able to flip through that crack, find what I’m looking for, and tap it in two seconds. But the dial meant I had to scroll through those albums individually, which made the whole process take longer.
In another instance, I summoned Siri and wanted to cancel any exchanges we were having. There is an onscreen Cancel or Back button that CarPlay places at the top left of each screen. It’s easy to mine, as it’s always in the same location. In this situation, of course I couldn’t do that, so I pressed the car’s physical Back button, near the spin button. But CarPlay didn’t recognize it, and I didn’t want to spend 10 seconds turning a knob trying to figure out how to highlight an item in the corner of the screen, so I just waited until Siri gave up.
These are just two examples. Sure, with enough time, I’ll get used to these nasty things, as we do with all our cars. That doesn’t change the fact that a dial is simply the wrong tool for these jobs. And even though Mazda isn’t responsible for CarPlay, it still has to play well with Apple’s platform. CarPlay should be as easy to use as the car’s built-in software, because customers will use it equally.
Damn, I want a well designed touchpad, like Acura’s, through Mazda’s system. And “touchpad” is a dangerous word in Jalopnik Slack – I should know because when I shared that opinion, my colleagues described it as “appalling” and “the world is a level” plane”. I prefer a pad because, like a touchscreen, it allows me to directly define any screen element with my finger, the only layer of abstraction is that I won’t touch it directly. into the screen. But, I don’t need to reach out either. It will be the best of both worlds.
This is a problem for which there is no universal solution, and I know it. Our brains all work a little differently and not all drivers find the same intuitive interface. In fact, redundancy is probably the best approach here; Touch screens are really cheap these days. We should all be able to cater these experiences to our preferences. I just wish the automakers stopped telling me I wasn’t safe, when I was the one forced to take my eyes off the road.