Monday, January 11, 2010

Computer on (dash) board: unsafe at any speed

The Consumer Electronics Show was on last week, and it brought with it the usual brew of whiz-bang (flexible electronic readers), practical (the flashlight for your car with the 20 year battery life), and oh-no (I seriously do not want 3-D television).

In the on-no category, the post position is assumed by all the technology aimed at making the car an even more immersive technological experience.

The first wave of these “infotainment systems,” as the tech and car industries call them, will hit the market this year. While built-in navigation features were once costly options, the new systems are likely to be standard equipment in a wide range of cars before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.  (Info source: January 7, 2010 New York Times.)

I'm relieved that the driver won't be able to watch Avatar while tootling down the MassPike. But it's not distracting to read a restaurant review, or look at the cover of an album? What is so all-fired important about either of those tasks that they merit taking your eyes off the road for a nano-second.

Those concerned with safety are pushing back.

“This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the new efforts to marry cars and computers. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.”

Audi is putting in a system that will let you to access a web site by "scribbling" what you're looking for in on a touch pad. Audi is, of course, going way out front on the safety front by having a notice pop up:

“Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

There, I've been warned. Now get out of my way so I can order extra peanut sauce with my Pad Thai, thank you very much.

A Ford spokesman - Jim Buczkowski - noted that, Ford, too is trying to make driving "safer and safer", while also stating:

“We are trying to make that driving experience one that is very engaging.”

Well, Jim-Bu, the driving experience already is, or should be, pretty darned engaging.

You're supposed to be looking ahead, checking for potential hazards, maintaining a safe distance from the car in front of you, checking your rear view and side mirrors to see what's crawling up your arse, making sure you don't drift lanes, slowing down - perhaps too late - when you observe the statie parked (nose in your direction) in the median strip, responding to changing weather, road, and traffic conditions, etc. - all while also taking a bit of time to observe the scenery and sing along with the Crystals "He's a Rebel" on the oldies station that "seek" just found.

Isn't this engaging enough for any one driver?

I will say that Ford does make a nod to safety by making sure that the built-in browser only works when the car is parked. (Any bets on how long before someone has a "workaround" for this?)

But it's generally acknowledged that the burden for driving responsibly wrests on the shoulders and texting thumbs of the driver.

“Cars are going to become probably the most immersive consumer electronics device we have,” said Michael Rayfield, a general manager at Nvidia, a chip company that on Thursday plans to announce a deal with Audi. “In 2010, you will sit in these things, and it will be a totally different experience.”

It will also be a totally different experience for those innocents killed or maimed by the fully engaged, fully immersed driver.

The automakers say that they're just giving the consumers what they want. (Can't let any nanny state get in the way.) They also maintain that - Web access aside -  they're giving drivers crucial information. I guess that's true if you consider knowing down to the decimal point what the temperature in your car is - something we all used to be able to figure out for ourselves in the old days. (As my sister Kath and I did when we were driving from Worcester to Boston a ka-zillion years ago in her Old Beetle - the one with the engine in the back and no heat whatsoever, other than in the dead of summer. Half way to Boston, Kath pulled over, and we both pulled our boots off and rubbed out toes so they wouldn't turn black and fall off.)

And where's Ralph Nader when we need him? In 2000, he sure proved himself to be the world's foremost busybody. Time to get off the political high horse, Ralphie-boy, and get back on the pony that brung you.  No, this time in won't be flaming Pintos and crumbling Corvairs. (And, yes, I know: the Pinto came later. So, okay, I took a bit of blog-etic license. So run me over with a computer-equipped Audi, why don't you.)

Come on, Mr. Nader, you must have one more crusade in you.

These immersive cars with computers in them are Unsafe at Any Speed, unless they're in Park.

Realistically, it probably doesn't matter whether the computer is embedded, or just a laptop with an Aircard or a smartphone. People are going to, increasingly, be answering their e-mails, looking for directions, playing TaiPei, and surfing eBay because they can and because they're too ADD to live without doing so.

But why should the automakers be enabling and abetting bad driving behavior? (Wait. These are the folks who convinced every parent in America that they were bad mommies and daddies if they aren't protecting their kiddos by toting them around in an armored ve-hi-cle.)

Sure, if computers in cars are outlawed, only outlaws will have computers in cars.

Still, wouldn't we be far better served by carmakers focusing on safety, rather than making the driving experience "more engaging?" 

What's it going to take? Some heedless, self-absorbed jerk who mows down a pre-school outing while updating his CRM data? Mo, betta jail time for the ultra-important folks who feel they have to respond to every e-mail in real time? A couple of whopping lawsuits against Audi because some narcissist ignored their, ahem, "warning."

Makes me truly thankful that I spend so little time on the roads.


Computers in cars are turning into an annual rant, apparently. Here's my post on it from a year ago.

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