March 2011

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Driven to Distraction

By Thomas Vincent

Interested readers are invited to check out Tom's Political Blog "Certain Doubt"

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 (“I’m on my way,” “I’m outside,” “O.K.”). It also has voice-activated 3-D navigation that allows you to merely announce “I’m 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 Starbuck’s.

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 you’re having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Ford’s working on a Web browser…”

For my part, I am not worried about the future of automobiles.

I am horrified.

The fact is, I can’t 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 don’t 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 son’s 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, 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 Dowd’s 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? (I’ve seen it) Or the schlub who is in such a hurry that he’s eating his big Mac and fries while barreling down the highway. (Seen that too) My driver’s ed instructor used to tell a story about a car that came towards him in his lane with no one in the driver’s 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 Ford’s new line-up which “…even help you with a bad mood by giving you ambient lighting, vibrating your seat or heating your steering wheel.” Can’t help to improve your driving experience if you have just spilled hot coffee in your lap. Acura’s new Bose “noise cancellation” system won’t 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 Eva’s programming that lets her sense when a driver’s mind is wandering dangerously into daydream land, all the hand’s free innovations aren’t 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. I’m not talking about cruise control. I’m 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.