Auto makers wince at the word “crash.”
If a computer crashes, oh-oh. If a car crashes, oh no! If a car crashes because a distracted driver is fiddling with on-board computer gear, well, welcome to the risky age of road-warrior connectivity.
Driver distraction increased with the advent of cell phones. The originals were strictly conversation pieces. A driver talking on one had a hand off the steering wheel. That posed a certain risk. Worse, many drivers enter a hypnosis-like state during cell-phone conversations.
Most sensible people don't want to share the road with a driver who's in a phone call-induced trance, no matter how many hands are on the wheel.
But at least those motorists weren't diverting their eyes from the road to gaze longingly into their cell phones.
Then along come smart phones that both visually and audibly enrapture users. People texting, emailing and such on their mobile devices typically use both hands. And both eyes.
No wonder studies indicate some people driving while using their phones show similar impairments as motorists who flunk breath tests.
Some quick-witted drivers can do all sorts of things and still keep the car out of a ditch. Conversely, some one-track people can get dangerously absorbed by changing radio channels.
Offer modern vehicle connectivity to the latter bunch, and you've disconnected them from traffic safety.
Distracted driving is an “epidemic,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says, tying it to 5,500 traffic deaths and 500,000 injuries a year.
He bridles at the prospects of auto makers filling their products with stuff that may keep drivers connected, but diminishes their driving skills.
Auto makers say they are responsibly trying to give consumers the latest in connectivity, while not aiding and abetting crashes of a vehicular kind.
But Phil Magney, an automotive researcher for IHS consultancy, says, “You have to limit some applications while the vehicle is in motion.”
A voice-command system helps keep thing under control. So would “a system that says, ‘The driver will get back with you later,’” Magney says.
But he adds, “There has been a rush to get technologies on board. We need to reel back a bit.”
Auto makers claim they're on the case, trying to minimize driver distraction while maximizing the latest in onboard connectivity.
Allan Mulally, who worked for Boeing before becoming Ford CEO, says, “In aviation, a pilot needs absolute control and situational awareness. That's essential to cockpit design.”
And now to vehicle-interior design.
Mulally wryly offers a news flash: “People drive better if they keep their hands and eyes on the road. Do that, and it is unbelievable how you can also multi-task safely.”
That is why Ford offers an advanced voice-command system. “Our data show we can make an absolutely significant reduction in driver distraction,” Mulally says.
Even so, some motorists need a crash course on making driving their No.1 priority, not an afterthought to connectivity activity.