Thursday, March 29, 2012

Distracted Driving: A Hot Button Issue

Published March 29, 2012

By Huw Evans

While alternative fuel technologies remain at the forefront of automakers’ minds, arguably an even bigger focus is their obsession for adding more and more features to the inside of our vehicles. The result of this push to meet perceived consumer demand is that the concept of “distracted driving” has almost taken on new meaning.

Whether it’s adding Bluetooth connectivity, smart phone apps, voice command technology, streaming TV, real time traffic updates or local points of interest, there are so many things to take our eyes off the road some are saying it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents on our streets and highways.

To make matters worse, the relentless march of turning the inside of a vehicle into an extension of the living room or office shows no signs of abating. In fact, the situation has gotten to the point that in 2010, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration observed that some 3,092 road-related fatalities alone were the result of distracted driving or “multitasking” behind the wheel.

Yet while companies such as Intel continue to pour more money and development into auto-based info entertainment systems, in this case, creating a $100 million “connected car fund,” there’s increasing talk on Capitol Hill that says tech companies are putting profits ahead of vehicle occupant safety.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman has been a key advocate in the move to reduce distracted driving.

“We’ve got to dispel the myth of multitasking,” she said recently at a distracted driving forum in Washington D.C. “What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time?”

Hersman has an ally in current U.S. Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, who’s made distracted driving a top safety priority since he was appointed to the post in 2009. However, the problem that many regulators recognize is that the pace of technology outstrips the ability to enforce laws restricting its use in vehicles, meaning agencies find themselves constantly playing catch up in an effort to curb distracted driving via legal means.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has issued guidelines, albeit voluntary ones for automakers, which require that no task take longer than two seconds and the vehicle must be stationary – with the transmission in park before driver can use navigation screens or access social media feeds.

Yet for those who see things as Hersman does, current federal programs don’t go far enough. Back in December, her board called for a complete ban of cell phone use while driving, including the use of hands free devices.

“If the technology produced focused more on what is safe, than what sells, we’d see highway fatalities go down,” she said.

A spokesperson for Intel, in response to criticism of vehicle info entertainment systems, said that “a significant area of focus for the [$100 million connected car fund] is to accelerate innovation for driver and passenger safety. For example, the fund will invest in startups developing technologies for advanced driver assistance, gesture recognition and sensors,” said Laura Anderson.

Yet, while Intel and indeed automakers such as Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz have been developing systems designed to counter distracted driving (such as active attention-getting feedback steering wheels that nudge the driver), focus group research shows that consumers, especially those in Gen Y, are looking for even greater in-car connectivity. As a result, economic pressures mean that we’re likely to see even greater emphasis on vehicle interior multitasking, at least in the near term.

Not helping matters is the fact that LaHood and his supporters are believed likely to get little support from Congress. If so, the upshot is that unless somebody finds a way to mandate attention-getting spikes in the steering wheel of every car sold in North America, the distracted driving “epidemic,” as it’s been labeled by NHTSA, is likely to remain a contentious issue for some time to come.

Further reading: Automotive News (subscription req'd), MSNBC


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