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Is Your Infotainment System's Font Distracting You?

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Age Lab, the New England University Transportation Center and Monotype Imaging, a provider of typefaces for consumer devices and applications, reveals that different kinds of typefaces used in vehicle infotainment and portable navigation screens impact glance time, which is the amount of time drivers spend with their eyes off the road and on display screens. Easy-to-read typefaces could improve driver focus, and potentially, reduce the risk of accidents.

In two studies, 82 participants who were 36 to 75 years old used in-vehicle displays with humanist and grotesque typefaces. Popular Science explains that a humanist typeface is generally “easier to read because it contains more open shapes (that ‘c’ won’t look like an ‘o’ when it’s shrunk down to 4-point type), because the letters are more clearly spaced apart, and because the forms themselves are distinct (there’s no confusing a ‘g’ with a ‘9’ or the capital letter ‘O’ with a zero).”

Monotype Imaging says the screens mimicked the text-rich devices that many drivers use to access restaurant, address and other menu information. In the second study, the only variable the research team altered was screen brightness. Of the two typefaces, the humanist format decreased the amount of time male drivers spent with their eyes off the road by 10.6 percent, in comparison with the grotesque typeface.

Steve Matteson, creative type director at Monotype Imaging, says that while the humanist style is ideal, "Eurostile is actually very popular in automotive today — it conveys power and energy. However, the letterforms are mechanically rigid and compact, tightly spaced, and in some cases are nearly indistinguishable from each other."

The federal government has put its foot down on distracted driving by proposing guidelines for automakers to place limitations on in-car technology and regulating cell phone use. The MIT Age Lab’s study suggests that typeface should be added to the list of distractions in need of remedies. Popular Science reports that Monotype Imaging and MIT have passed along their findings to automakers in hopes that they will consider legibility as they design infotainment interfaces. 

While it is unclear when or if standardized typefaces will impact infotainment systems and similar devices, test drivers report that some in-car interfaces are easier to use than others. Ford’s SYNC and MyFord Touch infotainment systems are panned for finicky voice controls and confusing menus, though reviewers say the systems are becoming easier to use as Ford refines the technology. Infotainment systems in BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi vehicles filter user inputs through a single knob, which frustrates some test drivers, though others think these systems are improving.

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