The US Navy says no to touchscreens—maybe automakers should, too

The US Navy has had enough of touchscreens and is going back to physical controls for its destroyers, according to a report last week in USNI News. Starting next summer the Navy will refit its DDG-51 destroyer fleet with a physical throttle and helm control system. The effort is a response to feedback the Navy solicited in the wake of a pair of fatal crashes involving that class of ship during 2017.

In June of that year, seven sailors were killed when the USS Fitzgerald collided with the MV ACX Crystal, a container ship. In August, 10 US sailors were killed when the USS John S McCain hit another container ship, the Alnic MC.

On August 5, the National Transportation Safety Board published its report into the USS John S McCain incident. Although the agency found that the probable cause was “a lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy,” it also criticized the ship’s complex throttle and steering touchscreen controls.

As we reported in 2017, when a sailor was instructed to transfer the throttle control to a different workstation, they also transferred the ship’s steering control at the same time. Unfortunately, the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System was being run in a backup mode that did not safeguard against this happening.

“[I]t goes into the, in my mind, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category. We really made the helm control system, specifically on the [DDG] 51 class, just overly complex, with the touch screens under glass and all this kind of stuff,” said Rear Admiral Bill Galinis during a recent speech quoted by USNI News.

It’s a warning that the auto industry could do well to listen to. Touchscreens continue to proliferate into car infotainment systems, a trend fueled by the plaudits given to Tesla for its huge touchscreens as well as a general belief that CES-primed customers are asking for more and more consumer tech in their vehicles. But there’s mounting evidence that touch interfaces are an idea for a driver who is supposed to be—literally—focusing on the road ahead, not hunting for an icon or slider on a screen.

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