These days, the sight of drivers with phones pressed to their ears is all too familiar. Unfortunately, though, the problems posed by such behavior are mounting. Some call it an epidemic, others say it's worse than drunken driving.
One solution to the dilemma would be to outlaw use of distracting technologies in the vehicle. But the question is, which technologies would you outlaw? Phones? Music players? Navigation systems?
In truth, consumers will have none of it. When the National Traffic Safety Board called for the "first-ever nationwide ban on portable electronic devices" earlier this year, the proposal was greeted with nationwide derision.
That's why automakers and suppliers are taking it upon themselves to improve the safety of devices that they're building and putting into vehicles.
Click on the photo below to see 14 examples of how car companies are studying the problem of driver distraction and how they propose to solve it.
The Ford Escape employs Integrated Blind Spot Mirrors to make it easier for users to see "blind spot drivers" while keeping their eyes on the road. (Source: Ford Motor Co.)
I was amazed by how many of these solutions, and the subsequent discussion, confused "eyes on the road" with "mind on the road". They take the need to look away from the road away, or remind you to look back. Instead they distract you with your eyes in place. Heads up displays are a perfect example of this. If you have 20 pieces of information popping at you, it hardly matters whether it is on your dashboard or on your windshield.
Right approach, reduce interaction, reduce interruption. For example, a reminder to get your oil changed should only appear when the vehicle is stopped. Calendar reminders and other non-critical items should not even be available while the engine is on.
To that end, voice command is a good thing. However, audio cues and flashing lights should be limited to critical matters. Nothing should grab your attention unless it is critical (e.g. you are about to run out of gas).
All of the focus in this discussion is on the driver. I find that an important factor in safe driving is knowing what the other drivers are doing, or are going to do. The ones who do not use their turn signals are the biggest problem I face. My way of dealing with it is to be very defensive, and use my headlight flasher to signal them to go first. That way I can avoid the surprise of them making a left turn in front of me with no warning.
Drivers who do not turn on their headlight when it is getting dark, or it is raining are another problem. At least some cars have automatic lights and wipers. As I have said several times in these blogs, bad car design is also a problem. Light placement and brightness, hard to see instrument panels and displays are other examples. Many times I have faced a car with its turn signals on at night, and I could not tell because they were so close to the bright headlights that they were overpowered. It is important to remember that drivers must deal with other traffic along with their own car.
People designing cars must be made aware of simple physics, such the relative brightness of lights, and making sure the driver can actually see out of the car. or read the speedometer in varying light conditions. Also not putting important display information in a place where it is blocked by the steering wheel is important. The more I read what I have said, the more it sounds like the real answer is driverless cars.
Put another way, "You can't fix stupid." People who don't understand the risk, can't take steps to avoid the risk. And most people don't understand the risk, including me sometimes. Driverless cars present entirely different problems, but it's entirely possible they are more amenable to a technological solution. Stupidity is resistant to a technological solution.
Pilots are taught to constantly scan for traffic rather than to focus in one direction and to use off-center viewing because of the way the eye perceives objects. Of course the same problem is applicable to automobiles. This link has a rather frightening demonstration of how bad the problem can be. Imagine one of those yellow dots being another vehicle.
These are all really interesting and it's good that engineers are looking to solve the distraction problem. But just to play devil's advocate--don't you think sometimes that more technology in cars that is meant to fix this problem would actually distract people more? I know personally that when I'm in a car with sat/nav or a visual screen mapping my location, sometimes I pay more attention to that than the road! I'm sure research is taking all of this into account, but just food for thought.
The real problem is that most of the distractions are provided by the items that add the greaates profit for the manufacturer. That is why we have a climate control system that has a digital temperature display, 47 different modes, and 35 different blower speeds. All of that, and then they still use REALLY STUPID icons for a lot of the important things. The low tire pressure warning light icon looks a lot like a flame, and it is certainly flame colored. That was very distracting the first time it came on, early in the morning. I certainly agree about the touch screens, in that it is required to place one's finger in just the right spot, and there are no textural ques as to where that is. The result is spending several seconds to find and activate some function. Having a knob or button for each function is a bit less distracting, if there are not to many of them. But reducing the number reduces the profit.
Then there are the multi-level t5rees that provide an order of magnitude more distraction. They are bad enough on a cell phone, they are really bad on an instrument panel. And much worse on a cell phone in a car in motion.
We need to recall that the primary target of all auto design is to maximize profit so that the chief engineers get larger bonuses. Safety is primarily added because ignoring it hurts the bottom line, if it is ignored a bit to much, and if they are unlucky. So it is not really likely that automakers will voluntarily givve up any of those high profit distractions. But possibly, if the traffic safety people ignore the screams, it may be that some of the distractions can be eliminated.
The use of touchscreens for simple tasks is an example of how designers have magnified distractions vastly. Had the horror of riding with my father in his base Prius - no bluetooth - while he attempted to set the heat & fan. In the sunlight.
I could not agree more that base controls functions should be able to be used, as one reviewer has put previously, with gloves on. Simple & easy. My opinion is that Ford has historically done a great job of this, & Subaru as well. Saab was an example, even before touchscreens, as to how to add complexity, & what I've seen of GM suggests they collaborated.
Touch screens in the car are a horror. Any controls that go on a screen should be able to be voice activated - maybe only voice activated.
Some of the clips in this slide show only add more flashing lights & distractions. I have no idea how that is construed to be a help, & I would never consider buying a vehicle with them.
The airplane analogy is certainly appropriate here.
During WWII, the bomber pilot spotted enemy fighters more often than his gunners...something like a 70/30 ration within his field of view. USAAF studies showed that the gunner, who's vision was focused some distance outside the aircraft, could not discern the incoming fighter until it was too late to respond. The pilot, however, was constantly changing his focus from the instruments, quick check of the exterior condition, scan the sky...etc. This changing focus apparently allowed him to detect a fighter's relative motion much sooner than the vision-fixed gunners.
This in itself contradicts what we safety nuts would like to believe. If extrapolated to a modern driver, we would expect the driver who scans his panel regularly and briefly, is essentially more alert and capable than one visually fixed 100 yards ahead of the car.
I suspect that the real difference is that a pilot during wartime realizes that his life is at immediate risk. Auto drivers do not, even when they have been accident victims multiple times......some people make good fighter pilots, others are just smoking holes in the ground.
ugh, I agree: vocal prompts and interfaces are a lot less dangerous and distracting to the driver than visual prompts. OTOH, any interruptions--including hands-free voice conversations--are still distractions and divert the driver's attention.
Some cars are more reliable than others, but even the vehicles at the bottom of this year’s Consumer Reports reliability survey are vastly better than those of 20 years ago in the key areas of powertrain and hardware, experts said this week.
As it does every year, Consumers Union recently surveyed its members on the reliability of their vehicles. This year, it collected data on approximately 1.1 million cars and trucks, categorizing the members’ likes and dislikes, not only of their vehicles, but of the vehicle sub-systems, as well.
A few weeks ago, Ford Motor Co. quietly announced that it was rolling out a new wrinkle to the powerful safety feature called stability control, adding even more lifesaving potential to a technology that has already been very successful.
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