We’ve all done it. Been momentarily distracted looking at our phone, or our car’s radio or navigation system when we should have been looking at the road ahead, only to glance up just in time to avoid a pothole, another car, a dog or worse.
Maybe some of you haven’t regained concentration in time, and while that would ultimately be your fault, it’s fair to say that automakers aren’t exactly helping. On the contrary, safety experts say, the auto industry is facilitating our distraction by cramming increasingly more complex tech in our cars that overloads our brains with information and entertainment possibilities precisely when we should be concentrating on keeping ourselves, and other road users, from harm.
“This is a major and an increasing issue,” Ian Jack, head of public affairs at the Canadian Automobile Association, which is planning to launch a campaign warning people about distracted driving, told The Canadian Press. “It’s becoming increasingly challenging for people to manage these things inside their vehicle.”
Independent tests have shown that even activities like eating and talking to a passenger can distract drivers enough to impair their ability to recognize and respond to dangerous situations. But the CAA is particularly concerned about the implications of fitting cars with increasingly sophisticated infotainment systems, a situation that came to a head in December 2021 when Tesla agreed to prevent drivers and passengers from playing video games on the dashboards of its cars only after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had opened a formal investigation into the feature.
Infotainment’s 20-Year Transformation
Think about how we interact with the cars of today versus the cars of 20 years ago. My driveway is currently home to a scruffy 2004 Honda CR-V I use for lugging my dog around, and a 2021 Ford Kuga/Escape PHEV that handles everything else. The Honda has no touchscreen or navigation system, just a single-DIN CD player. The air conditioning is manual and consists of three rotary dials that I can adjust without even needing to take my eyes off the road.
Unlike many modern cars, the Kuga also has rotary dials and buttons (which are too small and mounted too low down) for its climate control system, rather than hiding them inside a touchscreen. But many of the Ford’s features and its numerous menus are located inside the touchscreen, as they are with almost anything built in the last few years.
A study by the University of Utah and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that operating the infotainment systems in modern cars placed such a demand on the driver that some tasks could take more than 48 seconds. Little wonder that Canada’s Traffic Injury Research Foundation claimed in a 2018 study that one in four fatal crashes could be linked to distracted driving, which is roughly the same as driving while impaired.
New Cars Are Safer, Yet Also Less Safe
Now it’s true that cars have also become safer in many ways. My CR-V has no Bluetooth connection but the Kuga’s allows me to take calls without touching my phone. It also has lane guidance, adaptive cruise control, speed limit recognition tech and automatic braking. And while you do have to delve into the menus to access some functions, other systems from rival companies allow you to personalize the screen so that the apps you need are easier to access. But there’s no denying that new cars give us more opportunity to get distracted than a recovering alcoholic who’s landed a job as a bartender.
No one wants to lose their creature comforts. Though I love my CR-V’s simplicity, the Kuga is much better company on any lengthy trip thanks to its onboard nav and ability to stream my music playlists. And there are times, mostly when you’re parked, or stuck on traffic, when a touchscreen is really useful. Operating them on the move is trickier, but carmakers are under huge pressure to fit giant screens into cars because customers used to living their entire lives through their smartphones want the same technology in their cars, too.
BMW has so far stuck to its guns, at least in part, and integrated touchscreen technology with its iDrive rotary controller, reasonably concluding that both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses. But Audi has turned its back on the MMi rotary controller it launched around the same time, to the dismay of one Ingolstadt engineer I talked to, who agreed that the tech suckers people in at the showroom but isn’t so great out on the road.
Waiting For The Self-Driving Tech To Catch Up
It feels like we’re caught in a no-man’s land where the amount of information and entertainment-related technology fitted to our cars simply isn’t matched by the autonomous technology required to allow us to safely make use of it. Mercedes recently hit the headlines when the S-Class became the first car in the world to have genuine Level 3 autonomous capability. Which sounds great on paper, but the reality is that Drive Pilot only works on freeways, and at speeds up to 37 mph (59 km/h).
And at the same time, confusing marketing messages from many carmakers, particularly Tesla, leave drivers believing that their cars’ often quite basic autonomous systems are far more capable than they actually are, and feeling less wary about engaging with other technology while at the wheel.
And as for the tech that’s supposed to help prevent us getting distracted while we wait for the autonomous revolution to actually happen, voice activation on most cars still has some way to go before you can ignore your touchscreen and I can’t be the only one who finds the Apple CarPlay version of music and navigation apps frustratingly basic.
Eventually, autonomous tech will progress to the point that we’ll all be able to type out messages, watch movies and scroll through TikToks to out heart’s content. But that’s some way off, and until it happens carmakers need to take a serious look at how they can help us drivers stay focused on the job that’s, for now at least, still ours to do.
H/T to SaskToday