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Distractions in the Dashboard: Should There Be a Limit to In-Car Technology?

August 1, 2012

It’s safe to say that technology is here to stay. It’s spreading at an incredible rate and into previously unconnected places, like the dashboards of our automobiles. A particularly rich and detailed infographic posted on the tech website Mashable estimates that 15 percent of American households will have a communications-connected automobile by the end of this year. The New York Daily News reports that analysts at ABI Research, a technology market research firm, have estimated that this figure will rise to 60 percent by 2017, only five years from now. But don’t we already have enough to worry about while we’re in our cars?

Goldhaber Research Associates, LLC recently circulated a press release in which they claim that a new Ford system will allow drivers to send and receive text messages while driving. The technologically advanced radio in new BMWs takes 10 full seconds to tune to just one station. And Toyota’s new package will place many cutting-edge services directly in the hands of drivers: Pandora Internet radio, search engine Bing, OpenTable (for making restaurant reservations) and MovieTickets.com. Other add-ons include weather, stock information, gas prices, sports scores and traffic updates.

Other well-known companies like Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Microsoft have also thrown their hats into the ring, with Apple partnering with several carmakers to integrate its personal assistant Siri into automobiles. With the participation of these entities, it seems the focus has shifted from technology that will make drivers safer (like OnStar) to those that will serve to distract. Driving is not designed for productivity; it exists to get us safely from one place to another. Many of these insignificant-seeming gadgets will lead to drivers taking their eyes off the road, which, even when only done for a few seconds, can be fatal.

Automotive manufacturers claim that they are trying to meet demand, but do we need more gadgets at our disposal while we are operating a vehicle? According to Distraction.gov, “In 2010, 3,092 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver and an estimated additional 416,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver.” In fact, “18 percent of injury crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes.” These motor vehicle personal injury statistics are truly alarming.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seems aware of the issues but hasn’t mandated any real consequences for the provisions of tools that allow for distracted driving. This past winter the NHTSA decided to issue a set of voluntary guidelines asking automakers to focus on technology that encourages safety rather than entertainment and navigation systems, but there are no official guidelines and no punishments in place for placing further distractions in the dashboard. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that automakers could be taken to task from watchdog groups, or the courts, to keep their non-safety-oriented communications software out of vehicles or risk lawsuits or fines.

Forbes writer Dale Buss wrote a piece about this new auto-connectivity movement in which he cites influential analyst and auto tech leader Thilo Koslowski. He says, “[T]he auto industry must be careful not to fall victim to mobile-device hype. At the end of the day, for them it’s not so much the question of whether ‘there’s an app for that’ as whether there shouldbe an app for that. And I’m not sure they’re recognizing that.”

Mashable mentions only fleetingly that YouTube would probably only be accessible from the back seat, but the point remains, where do we draw the line?

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