Driving to Distraction – Online Addictions Have Officially Hit the Road

Nowadays, when you see the car in front of you swerving, alcohol use isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The person in question could be performing any number of tasks while also trying to drive.

Seemingly, the average of eight hours a day we spend staring at a computer screen is not enough for the average consumer. The need to stay connected has followed us into the driver’s seat and the war between our online addiction and safety is being won by the new partnership between the technology companies and carmakers.

The once exclusive list of infotainment features available in cars is no longer found in luxury vehicles alone. Now, carmakers of every price range are plugging into the latest infotainment devices and marketing heavily to the connection-addicted car buyer.

Forgive the pun, but a Pandora’s box of technology is wide open and there seems little chance of closing it now. Between the screen on a Smartphone and the screen inside a car, the commonalities are becoming harder to differentiate.

What do today’s cars have built into the dash to further distract us? Here are some of the general categories of connectivity that are now becoming commonplace.

Texting and Social Media
These devices allow you to dictate messages and sometimes have your incoming texts “read” to you. Ford’s Sync system provides automated text replies – hopefully that say “I’m driving right now and don’t want to be distracted.” Hyundai’s new Blue Link gives you the option of dictating and sending texts but not receiving them. GM’s OnStar system has what they call “Audio Facebook” – and will read your Facebook news feed to you.

Finding and Playing Music
Of course, using an iPod or MP3 device saves you the hassle of bringing a bunch of CDs into the car, but navigating those devices can be a bit daring while driving. Car companies have “met in the middle” by creating in-dash apps such as Pandora, MOG and XM Radio apps that are easier to read in larger print (than on your Smartphone or iPod), but the amount of time it takes to find the song/program you’re looking for could prove dangerous. As for XM/Sirius radio, alone, there are over 200 channels to search – overwhelming even if you had no driving to do.

Navigation and All the Goodies
Anyone who has in-dash navigation can attest to its ultimate helpfulness – in fact, it’s literally put the Thomas Brother’s Guide out of business. But the competition for more detailed and complicated systems to serve our every need means more eyes on the program and less on the road. Sports scores, five-day weather reports, news headlines, gas prices and stock quotes are just of a few of the new fangled services available in some of the smart-phone connected navigation displays. An example of one potentially distracting feature on Audi’s latest MMI system is Google Earth directions with the “Street View” feature on the car’s dashboard.

In-Car WiFi Connectivity
Many luxury cars and now more mid-range priced cars are offering wi-fi routers, usually located in the trunk of the car, but now also connected to your phone’s wi-fi, for internet connectivity of laptops, iPods, and other internet devices. Although this feature is usually marketed with a photo of the devices located in back seat, the opportunity for a driver to be online is always possibility. These devices can also be purchased as after-market add-ons, so it’s not just the car companies that are making this ultimate distraction possible.

Bluetooth – Hands-Free Chatting
Bluetooth is probably the original technology in cars that got this entire distraction thing started. Once the statistics came out proving the connection of car accidents in the U.S. nd cell phone use (28% of all crashes to date), laws changed rapidly requiring only hands-free talking while driving. There are still some safety advocates that contend that the very act of having a conversation is just as distracting. One study shows that 18% of drivers talking on the phone – even hands free – were shown to be slower to react to brake lights.

Digging Deeper for Simple Tasks
Simple tasks such as setting music presets, using climate control and changing the lighting in many cars has gone from one simple button on the dashboard to up to six steps of joystick and touch screen directions. Add to that the complexity of simply playing music on an iPod through a USB port and it’s like putting together a difficult word game puzzle while also trying to drive on a an overcrowded highway.

Although no amount of backlash has overridden the perceived consumer need for all this distraction, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) did release guidelines for vehicle controls that operate in-car electronics earlier this year. Car companies are asked by the government agency to adhere to these guidelines, but it is still not illegal or enforceable by the government agency and consumers have no way to know who is and is not complying.

The NHTSA’s Phase I guidelines include recommendations to:
>Reduce complexity and task length required by the device

>Limit device operation to one hand only (leaving the other hand to remain on the steering wheel to control the vehicle)

>Limit individual off-road glances required for device operation to no more than two seconds in duration

>Limit unnecessary visual information in the driver’s field of view

>Limit the amount of manual inputs required for device operation.

Carmakers, however, are pursuing these online technologies now more than ever. An organization called The Car Connectivity Consortium (CCC) has formed putting technology companies together with car companies to create standards of connectivity that will increase the affordability and ease by which car companies can build on technology platforms that are compatible for all users. And with consumer demand driving the need for in-car technology – almost more than horsepower – it’s not about to end any time soon.


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