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Maureen Dowd is worried about the future.
I worried in a prior column that Ford cars with the elaborate and popular new in-car connectivity sounded like death traps. Ford Sync lets you sync up to apps, reading your Twitter feeds to you. My Ford Touch plays your iPod on demand and reads your texts to you including emoticons and allows you to choose one of 10 prewritten responses (Im on my way, Im outside, O.K.). It also has voice-activated 3-D navigation that allows you to merely announce Im hungry or Find Chinese restaurant.
The notion of a car that acts as a butler is, of course not exactly new. I first experienced this phenomenon several years ago when a friend with a company car decided to show off his new On-Star system by calling and asking for directions to the nearest Starbucks.
Since then, the gizmos car manufacturers include in their vehicles have gone from merely goofy to downright insane. As Dowd describes, the newest cars contain:
a system featuring the futuristic avatar Eva, the vaguely creepy face and voice of a woman on your dashboard who can read you your e-mail, update your schedule, recite articles from newspapers, guide you to the restaurant where youre having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Fords working on a Web browser
For my part, I am not worried about the future of automobiles.
I am horrified.
The fact is, I cant handle the distractions that are on my dashboard now. I have to turn the radio off when I drive through an unfamiliar neighborhood. To heck with futuristic E-mail and twitter feeds. I have trouble adjusting the air flow selector on the fly. I think most people are in the same boat.
They just dont want to admit it.
Many people I know, particularly young people steeped in modern media, are loathe to admit that they are not up on the latest electronic fad. I-Pods, I-Pads, I-Phones, Kindle, Evo, 4-G. To admit being uneducated about the latest gizmo, is anathema to my sons generation.
I am far from a technological Luddite. When a true time or labor saving device comes along, I embrace it with alacrity. However, much of the technological improvements that car manufacturers are coming up with these days are just plain dumb. For example, on its list of top ten Auto innovations, Cars.com includes such stunning achievements as: Electronic key fobs, fold fat rear seats, DVD players, and GPS navigation systems. (Whatever happened to stopping and asking directions?)
As I have pointed out repeatedly despite years of automotive research, the essential nature of automobiles has not changed since their inception. They still have a motor, tires, headlights, and a steering wheel. Moreover, all the safety improvements have not changed the most basic, lowest common denominator: the nut behind the wheel.
Maureen Dowds point, that many of the innovations are actually distractions that make driving less safe is a good one. My point is, driving is already unsafe. You can work around the hazards of driving while holding a cell phone by including hands free Blue tooth technology. But what are you going to do about the woman who insists on applying make-up while driving? (Ive seen it) Or the schlub who is in such a hurry that hes eating his big Mac and fries while barreling down the highway. (Seen that too) My drivers ed instructor used to tell a story about a car that came towards him in his lane with no one in the drivers seat. Turns out the driver had dropped a lit cigarette on the floor and was searching frantically for it before it burnt the carpet.
Cars like Fords new line-up which even help you with a bad mood by giving you ambient lighting, vibrating your seat or heating your steering wheel. Cant help to improve your driving experience if you have just spilled hot coffee in your lap. Acuras new Bose noise cancellation system wont make you a safer or better driver if you are busy listening to your secretary tell you about the latest catastrophe that awaits you at work.
Interestingly, in my own experience, the times I have driven dangerously (the two speeding tickets on the New Jersey Turnpike for example) have happened, not because I have been distracted by things on the dashboard, but when I was worrying about what awaited me at the end of my journey. Unless Ford includes a subroutine in Evas programming that lets her sense when a drivers mind is wandering dangerously into daydream land, all the hands free innovations arent going to mean squat.
If auto manufacturers are truly interested in improving the driving experience and making it safer, they should consider ways of removing humans from the equation. Im not talking about cruise control. Im talking about a true auto pilot.
If we want to improve the driving experience, what we need are not better butlers. What we need are chauffeurs.