While I was driving along an interstate last Friday
, an intriguing event caught my eye: Traffic in the next lane slowed rapidly, and a guy driving a pickup truck in that lane didn't notice. He was fiddling with something in the center of the dash right up to the moment he plowed into the car in front of him.
Since I was transporting 22 rescued kittens in my car, I was grateful just to avoid the whole swerving mess that resulted and wondered how many hundreds of times a day similar rear-enders happen all over the country. I seemed to recall reading somewhere that they are the lion's share of all traffic accidents. And then I forgot about it.
That night, I got home and found the new Crutchfield catalog in the mail. As usual, I flipped through it, scouring it for interesting new products. There was the Kenwood XXV-01D, the Pioneer DEH-P80MP, the Alpine CDA-9855, and the Sony CDX-M9905X. Each one is an example of the new era of auto stereo head-unit design: a combination of fiddly little buttons, knob wheels, and a highly detailed visual display. It's an arrangement that requires visual acuity and mental concentration to operate and to get the most out of--a combination that I believe can make a rear-ender out of many of us.
The button text and the character display on these stereos are tiny, but the amount of information they convey is huge. The control of parameters is highly nuanced--however, the buttons are so small or virtual that you have to look at them to confirm what you just did. And many of these receivers are now using soft keys that change functions depending on the mode. As a result, you'll probably have to look at the thing to determine what mode it's in and what each control does in that mode. I have a dual-trace oscilloscope that's simpler to use!
If we're going to assail cell phones for diverting our concentration behind the wheel, we have to look at car stereos too. They're not as distracting, but they're not innocent either--especially the very sophisticated ones.
To be fair, the problem can be traced back to increasingly sophisticated programming: the RDS (radio data system), satellite radio, and iPod interfaces. Nowadays, we drive around interacting with our track, album, channel, artist, and playlist. Instead of the Stonehenge level of information that used to typify car stereos, we now have several lines of alphanumeric text, a bar graph representation of EQ levels, full-color wallpaper images copied from an SD card, and cryptic little icons that mean something if you just stare at it long enough to jog your memory--and then...WHAM!
I won't suggest dumbing down content data, locking up radio controls when your car isn't in park, or ticketing people who fiddle with their car stereo while driving. But I do offer these three jump balls to the car tech industry to compensate for the fact that in-car entertainment is becoming a dangerous foreground activity:
- Abandon the single-DIN slot. The standard radio "hole" in the dash is just too little real estate to interface with today's in-car entertainment. It's time for at least a double-DIN slot in every dashboard or a proprietary system that is at least that large. Bigger is just easier.
- Embrace speech technologies. This is only a partial step, since the latest research into accidents and cell phones tells us that keeping your eyes on the road is only half the battle. However, focusing our eyes on tiny buttons is just stupid in an era when good speech recognition is doable and affordable.
What other tips do you have to make car stereos safer?
- Move the radio. Does it really have to be in the center of the car? Why not put it in front of the driver? No room? Move something stupid such as the amp gauge, which most people don't understand anyway. If passengers squawk about not being able to reach it, make the faceplate removable, like an antitheft unit, and add Bluetooth so that it can be passed around the car and still work.
Let's face it: The real issue is that we as a culture have become bored with just driving. The novelty wore off decades ago. Being entertained is now in the foreground, while controlling the car has moved to the background. MTV-bred mindlessness is the norm out there. We probably won't reverse that sorry trend, but we can make sure our car tech is doing what it can to balance it.