This Information Superhighway Thing Is Getting a Bit Ridiculous
While I was abroad Randall Stross wrote a good piece in the New York Times (here or below the jump), in which I was quoted briefly, about Chrysler’s plan to equip its cars with WiFi internet access.
Given that the car manufacturers worked carefully to come up with standards for things like restricting the number of commands that could be used on nav systems while driving, it seems to me extremely negligent that they would then essentially toss that caution out the window to enable full-on internet surfing in their cars.
Unlike simple information gauges in the car, the laptop screen offers a much more immersive environment, in any number of ways: the small size of the display information, the richness and complexity of the information, the necessity to scroll through various screens, the location of the computer away from the windshield, the potential to input responses, even the slow download speeds, which might cause the driver to keep looking to see if it’s finished, etc. Lord knows how they would type and do that quaint thing that we used to call simple, non-distracted, driving.
As an example of what internet surfing would mean on the road, just imagine, in the amount of time it took you to read this sentence, you’d have traveled, if moving only at 30 mph, nearly 100 feet — imagine if you were going 70?
Chrysler says this is meant only for backseat use, presumably by children, etc., spending an ever greater portion of their childhood development strapped into the back of so-called “living rooms on wheels,” and apparently ever desiring of non-stop connectivity lest their dwindling attention spans suffer a flameout. An easy way for Chrysler to defray criticism would be to simply allow the service to only be enabled while the car isn’t in motion, as one sees with in-car DVD systems. That is a sane and useful service. I’m curious to see how the liability on this will shake out — I do know if I got t-boned by someone who was updating their MySpace page on Chrysler-provided bandwidth I’d go looking for the deep pockets in a lawsuit. Yes, drivers should be responsible for their actions, but given the myriad ways things can already go wrong on the road, why should the car-maker expand the options with its options?
There’s any number of reasons why this move only makes sense in the world of a struggling car-maker seeking anything it can to distinguish its product in a hostile environment (and have thus made the driving environment more hostile). The car manufacturers used to be rightly criticized for skimping when it came to producing safe cars. They’ve come a long way towards putting that history behind them — cars in and of themselves are less dangerous for their occupants — so it’s all the more puzzling to me that they would suddenly put the car in reverse, as it were.
I also told Mr. Stross this: “Apart from the safety issues, which are huge — this idea is, to paraphrase Ralph Nader, unsafe at any download speed — the presence of the internet connected computer in the car raises the specter of an even more unpleasant driving experience than the one we’re currently in, in which people on those same phones tend to forget they’re in a public space, with legal rules and expected norms of behavior, and fail to signal, take longer to pull away at lights, and generally annoy the drivers who are, gasp, actually driving… Drivers are already in their own private cocoons, that they would be checking their “Myspace” page hints at a further fragmentation from the public space of the road.”
[UPDATE: Randy Stross sends along this link to an early candidate for this year’s Darwin Awards.]
August 24, 2008
Caution: Driver May Be Surfing the Web
By RANDALL STROSS
ANYTHING that keeps tykes pacified on long car trips, like video systems in rear seats, is a boon to automotive safety. Today, Chrysler is poised to offer in its 2009 models a new entertainment option for the children: Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity. The problem is that the entire car becomes a hotspot. The signals won’t be confined to the Nintendos in the rear seat; front-seat occupants will be able to stay online, too.
Bad idea. As drivers, we have done poorly resisting the temptation to move our eyes away from the road to check e-mail or send text messages with our cellphones. Now add laptops.
Tom Vanderbilt, the author of “Traffic,” a best-selling book about our driving habits, said last week: “We’ve already seen fatalities from people looking at their laptops while driving. It seems absolutely surprising that Chrysler would open the door for a full-blown distraction like Internet access.”
On Chrysler’s Web site, Keefe Leung, a manager in the company’s advanced connectivity technology group, explains the rationale for the service: “People are connected in their lives everywhere today. They’re connected at home, they’re connected at the office, they’re connected at Starbucks when they go for a cup of coffee.” But, he says, “the one place that they spend a lot of time that they’re not connected is in their vehicle, and we want to bring that to them.”
Clearly, for safety reasons, Mr. Leung cannot condone use of the service by drivers. When he is shown in the videos demonstrating the service, called UConnect, he always occupies a rear seat.
When I asked him last week about possible misuse of the service by drivers, he said that it was “tailored for kids in the back seat” and that the company would provide instructions to owners about its intended use.
Still, Chrysler is the company that came up with the “living room on wheels” concept for its minivans, and Mr. Leung can’t resist talking about the Internet-connected car as “another room, an extension of your home.” It isn’t, though. At my home, the living room is stationary. But on the road, my “room” may collide with yours.
In case you’re curious, the United States Transportation Department this month released the final totals for traffic accidents last year: 2.49 million people injured and 41,059 dead.
That’s just a single year’s tally. As Mr. Vanderbilt says in his book, many people have been willing to accept curtailed civil liberties as a response to terrorist threats, but many of the same people “have routinely resisted traffic measures designed to reduce the annual death toll,” like curbing cellphone use while driving.
The Transportation Department is pleased that the number of traffic deaths in 2007 was the lowest since 1994 and reflected a historic low in deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
But when one talks with public health groups and insurance industry representatives, one doesn’t hear jubilation. The decline in the total number of deaths obscures a more complicated story. While we have made large gains curbing alcohol-impaired driving and instilling the habit of buckling up, we have wasted most of the gains by using cellphones while driving.
Two studies, one Canadian and reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, the other Australian and reported by the British Medical Association, examined cellphone records of people injured in automobile crashes. Both studies concluded that when drivers were talking on phones, they were four times as likely to get into serious crashes.
The studies show that laws mandating the use of hands-free phones are little help: the increased risk of injury is attributable to the cognitive impairment from the phone conversation, which distracts in ways that a conversation with a seatmate does not, and was just as high for those using hands-free sets as for those with hand-held ones. (Don’t look for a similar study for the United States: the carriers refuse to supply the necessary records, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in Arlington, Va.)
J. R. Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington, calls “distracted driving” one of the leading threats to “all of us who drive or walk in this country.” Will drivers exercise good sense and not use their laptops while driving? He is not sanguine: he knows of few drivers who follow the example of a colleague, who locks her P.D.A. in the car trunk before setting out so she won’t be tempted to put it to use while driving.
A laptop will pose a similar problem, even if it remains on the lap of a front-seat passenger. Mr. Kissinger said: “I can picture two teenagers in the front and the passenger pulls up a YouTube video. I can’t imagine the driver saying, ‘I’m going to pull over and stop so I can safely watch what you’re laughing at.’”
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute, shares that concern. “Adding another electronic distraction,” he says, “is a formula for disaster.” Even if the entertainment devices are in the hands of a passenger, what will happen is perfectly predictable — “the driver will want to see,” he said.
Chrysler was not the first to endow laptops in the car with Internet connectivity; individual users have been doing on their own in any number of ways, such as by selecting laptop models with built-in cellular wireless access or by using PC cards supplied by their wireless carrier. An off-the-shelf mobile router and PC card could essentially duplicate the networking setup of UConnect Web and at a cost far less than the $495 plus installation fees that Chrysler will charge.
Which occupants in the car will most avidly use UConnect? Is it the children in the back with game consoles that provide plenty of self-contained entertainment without the Internet? Or is it the adults in the front seat, whose ability — never strong — to voluntarily remain unconnected is now disappearing?
Will we notice if our living room on wheels, fully loaded with every amenity, sails off the
Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This entry was posted on Saturday, August 30th, 2008 at 2:49 pm and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Etc., Risk, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.