Frightening In-Vehicle Technologies That Could Spell Future Disaster


Photo: Lord Jim

Last year, an industry-rattling study from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that those that text while they drive are 23 times more likely to crash than those that don’t. Following those findings, federal, state and local governments have been burning the midnight oil drafting tougher legislation and regulations to ban and penalize texting and other distractions while driving.

Meanwhile, the ever-industrious auto industry has been busy giving us a whole next generation worth of distractions that will likely be the subject of future studies and laws. Hidden behind thin reasoning that in-vehicle technology will streamline things people are already doing behind the wheel, automakers like Chevy and Ford have been busy merging mechanics and electronics in such offerings as in-vehicle Wi-Fi and voice-based social networking. In fact, earlier this month, the Consumer Electronics Show announced that it plans to expand this year’s in-vehicle technology exhibit for the 2011 show in January because the auto industry is just bursting at the seams with “valuable” new consumer technologies.

The fact that the movement to ban cell phones from cars and that to equip cars with peripherals like Internet connectivity are happening at the same time is absolutely flummoxing. It’s like car makers decided the way out of bankruptcy was to pander to what’s cool instead of what makes actual sense. A seemingly innocent quote from Ford used to introduce its MyFord Touch system shows that that’s exactly what the industry is doing: “People line up for iPhones – why not cars?”

In other words, to hell with safety implications, the iPhone is cool, the iPhone is popular, why not make our cars more like the iPhone! Score! Except that a car shouldn’t be an iPhone. (By the way, people do line up for cars, just not for dull-ass stock Ford Focuses and Chrysler 200s. Try giving people a car worth lining up  for, and surely they will.)

Certain technologies like GPS and blind spot detection systems have actually made roads safer. The difference is those types of technology are actually designed to assist the driver in what he’s supposed to be doing: driving. The gratuitous technologies we deal with here have nothing to do with driving. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently summed it up quite nicely: “Features that pull drivers’ hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions. Period.” And that’s about all the following technologies do. Period.

In-Vehicle Wi-Fi

Major American automakers have slowly been integrating vehicular Wi-Fi into select models for the past couple years, either through a dedicated in-vehicle router or via mobile phone connections. Chrysler got the Wi-Fi party back in the 2009 model year; Chevy announced seven 2010 models with optional in-car Wi-Fi last December and Ford quickly followed suit. While such technology sounds great for passengers on a long road trip, it’s a little terrifying to think that drivers are able to surf the Internet, send Tweets and hold IM conversations on a passenger-seated laptop while steering with the other hand. Because you know that no matter what types of laws there are regulating it, there will still be some asshats that think they’re capable of checking stock prices and driving at the same time.

In-Vehicle Facebook

There has got to be a point where all the mundane minutia that weaves the fabric of social networking is too much. And that point is certainly the car door. The idea of sending friend requests and updating your profile with all your latest tidbits of wisdom and life experience while driving 75 mph down the highway is just absolutely asinine. Why, outside of the fact that Facebook is running out of new revenue streams and U.S. automakers are all too desperate to appear hip and with it after years of ignoring the car-buying public, do we need Facebook in a car? For the love of all that is holy, we don’t. Ever.

But thanks to the industrious engineers at OnStar, we’re getting it. As announced last month, OnStar will offer drivers the option of having Facebook updates and text messages read aloud. In turn, they can respond and update through voice commands. While it’s nice that they are making it hands-free and all, do drivers really need to be checking their Facebook updates when they should be focusing on things like the car three feet in front of them, traffic lights and rear-view mirrors?

Automated Cars

Now somewhere in this whole mess, there’s probably an argument that the best solution is to stop people from driving at all. No matter how many technological hurdles you overcome, no matter how many laws you put in the books, people are still going to do stupid things while driving. Whether it’s texting, drunk-driving, putting on make-up in the driver’s seat, people always seem to think they know better.

But the thought of a computer-driven car is even scarier than the human-driven paradigm we have now. Earlier this month, Google announced that it has been testing a fleet of self-driven cars that use cameras, range finders, sensors, GPS navigation and software to drive without help from any meddling human. Google’s car is scary for a lot of reasons, the most fundamental of which is that it takes driving out of the hands of cognizant people and puts it at the mercy of a bunch of 1′s and 0′s. Human drivers are far from perfect (especially when they’re surfing the Web on the road), but have you ever had a complete computer crash? As great as computer technology is, it leaves us extremely vulnerable when software fails and viruses attack. And I can’t imagine a more vulnerable place to be than speeding down the highway during rush hour.

Remote Entry Apps

Today’s app culture is a bit out of control. Just because you can do it with your cell phone doesn’t mean that you have to. Does anyone really need to unlock and start their Boston-parked car while vacationing in Chicago? Maybe it’s a pants-wetting novelty that some just “have” to have, but it’s not really needed. When enough people have their cell phone and, subsequently, car stolen, or become victims to grand hack-theft auto, this unnecessary technology may just go back to whence it came.

MyFord Touch

Ford announced its MyFord Touch system at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show. The system appears to have good intentions of organizing and streamlining cabin functions to make them easier for the driver to control. But like so many other well-meaning intentions, MyFord Touch seems like it could make driving more difficult and distracting. It takes the focus of the driver’s seat away from actual driving and shifts it over to an 8-inch main screen, two auxiliary touchscreens next to the speedometer and a plethora of steering-wheel-mounted buttons. The functions are grouped into Phone, Climate, Navigation and Entertainment and can be controlled by your choice of voice-, touch- or steering-wheel-based controls.

When I first read about the MyFord Touch, I found it difficult to explain, let alone use while trying to focus my attention on the road. The Wall Street Journal’s Walter Mossburg made it clear that it can be confusing in person, as well: “Ford’s new user interface has so many options and functions that I believe it presents a challenging learning curve. Learning the new system can be distracting while driving, at least at first—even though Ford disables some functions while the car is in motion and even though voice commands are easy and plentiful, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.”

The auto industry wants to placate the public and government by arguing that things like voice-based texting make cars safer by eliminating the penchant for people to do these things the “old-fashioned” way. In fact, the official line of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is that new technological systems help drivers keep their eyes on the road and prevent the distraction of handheld devices. Because all those rubes would just be texting, surfing the Web and checking Facebook anyway, so why not make it safer.

Only the research doesn’t support the notion that it gets any safer. Back when cell phones did nothing but make voice calls, the big problem on the agenda was cell phone use while driving. And the heralded messiah was the hands-free headset, which allowed drivers to make calls without having to hold their handset.

Everything’s been solved on that front, right? Not at all. According to the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety, drivers making hands-free calls are just as dangerous as those making handheld calls. Other studies like a 2006 study from the University of Utah have found much the same, concluding that the distracting part of driving and cell phone use is the conversation itself, not the hardware involved.

So it reasons that this would remain the same for voice texting and Facebook updates while in the car-both are distractions of various degrees and the industry’s persistence in trying to cover this simple fact up in the name of creating lusty, buzz-worthy tech is painfully irresponsible at best. At some point the industry and lawmakers have to sack up and take unnecessary technology out of cars for good. Unfortunately, that’s just not the direction we’re going in now.