The other day I was driving on I-280 in San Francisco, and the car in front of me intermittently veered into the next lane to the right. I looked closely at the car to figure out what was going on. Was the driver drunk? Consulting a map? No, he had a passenger next to him and every time he turned to talk to her, he pulled the wheel to the right.
There is some backlash to loading up our cars with gadgets. I've heard arguments that navigation screens and hands-free cell phone systems increase driver distraction. I recounted the above example to show that drivers can be distracted without the aid of electronic devices. In this column, I'm going to run down a couple of the major automotive gadgets and why I think they improve substantially on their nontech predecessors.
Are you for or against GPS and cell phones in cars?
A story last year in the Times of London reported that drivers were following their GPS directions right into a river. The GPS devices calculated a route that took the drivers through a ford in the English village of Luckington, because a more commonly used road had been closed. Although this story makes an amusing anecdote, would drivers relying on a paper map or printed turn-by-turn directions from Google or Yahoo maps have made the same mistake?
As this spot was a recognized ford, it would appear on maps as if the road went right on through. And since Google and Yahoo maps rely on the same databases as GPS devices do, those services would have indicated crossing the river. So it really comes down to the drivers. Are they going to follow the dictates of a GPS device beyond all common sense?
Similarly, you wouldn't stare at your GPS map screen while driving (or you shouldn't), just as you wouldn't stare at a paper map while driving. And I would suggest that trying to follow a map or printed turn-by-turn directions is even more distracting than following the route guidance from a GPS device. Maps are big and unwieldy, and each time you look at one, you have to find your location within all that printed information. Likewise with Yahoo or Google directions, you have to find where you are along that route each time you look down at it.
And if you take a wrong turn somewhere, a GPS device will immediately recalculate based on your new direction. With a map you need to pull over and figure out the next set of streets you'll need to get back on route. At least you should pull over. I know I've been in situations where I've wanted to keep on going, so I pulled the map over onto the steering wheel and tried to drive while figuring out where I was.
Frequently when I see a car exhibiting erratic behavior, the driver has one hand on the wheel and one hand holding a cell phone to his or her ear. States are starting to legislate against cell phone-wielding drivers, but the genie is out of the bottle. Just as people will blatantly use carpool lanes illegally, plenty of people will think nothing of making calls while sitting in traffic or speeding down the freeway. And the fact is that in-car infractions are very difficult for the police to catch.
One draconian way to limit in-car cell phone use would be to get rid of automatic transmissions, making driving a two-handed job. But some people would still insist on using their phones and be even more dangerous under the circumstances.
Hands-free systems help, but they don't completely eliminate driver distraction. Studies identify two kinds of distraction: physical and cognitive. A really well-integrated hands-free system can completely eliminate physical distraction. The best we've seen at CNET Car Tech downloads your phone's address book to the car, letting you make calls by using steering wheel buttons and the car's information display.
But carrying on a phone conversation creates cognitive distraction, which interferes with driving. You can't really quantify how much a phone conversation causes cognitive distraction, because it's going to vary from person to person and from conversation to conversation. I've had conversations over hands-free car systems while driving and felt very little distraction, although my calls tend to be to the point, without a lot of idle chatter.
As my example at the beginning of this column showed, people can be very distracted while talking to a passenger in the car, even more so than when talking on a phone. I've heard an argument that talking to people in the car is less distracting, because you have visual cues from their faces, but that just doesn't make sense to me. I would prefer someone were looking straight ahead at the road while talking, rather than turning to look at someone's face.
One interface to rule them all
The holy grail that a few car makers have been working toward is a simple, single interface to control all of a car's gadgets. Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW each came up with the idea of putting a joystick/knob down by the shifter, a natural place for drivers to put their hands. BMW took a lot of flak for its iDrive system, but the fault isn't in the hardware.
The first few times I used the iDrive system, I found it difficult to figure out when I should turn the knob and when I should push it like a joystick. The screens just weren't very intuitive. However, the first time I used the Mercedes-Benz Comand system, which uses a similar joystick/knob, I took to it immediately. The screens were designed so that I could easily figure out when I needed to turn or push the controller.
For a completely different direction, Honda seems interested in doing away with knobs and buttons altogether, relying on voice command instead. With its cars, you can issue voice commands to change the temperature, set the stereo volume, select a destination for the navigation system, and even get the car to tell you the time. Honda has made this system fairly intuitive, although you still need to know which commands take you to which systems.
A lot of research is being done in voice command, and I think it's going to become the interface of choice for our car gadgets. New voice systems on the horizon can handle different words to enact the same function, and will also be able to understand the context of a command. One example: You can ask the car "What's the temperature in San Jose?" and then follow up with "How about Phoenix?" Because you just asked about the temperature in one city, it will assume your question about Phoenix is in the same context. If your follow-up question was "How do I get to Phoenix?" the car would understand that you are asking a question in a different context, and adjust to navigation.
It's not hard to find people who are opposed to any phone use in a car, and I've talked to plenty of people who are suspicious about navigation devices. But if you're going to take the antigadget route, then the stereo should go as well. There are also plenty of external-distraction problems. Just try driving through heavy traffic in a city. You have pedestrians and bicyclists that can come out unexpectedly. You have a plethora of traffic signs and signals at each intersection. Cars cross lanes to get a parking spot and trucks double-park to unload cargo.
As more of America becomes urbanized, drivers will have to cope with increasing external distraction. I think the automakers are going in the right direction by trying to simplify car interfaces, integrate cell phones with cars, and install navigation systems.