It’s becoming more commonplace to see many drivers on their cell phones, reading maps or newspapers, putting on lipstick or eating lunch while driving. But don’t look now, the driver cruising in the lane next to you may be checking Facebook or surfing the Web. New in-car services, such as Toyota’s Entune and BMW’s ConnectedDrive, demonstrate how automakers are hoping to attract new customers by integrating smart phone and Web access into vehicle control systems. In addition, some cars come loaded with electronic features that are guaranteed to boggle the brain.
Toyota’s Entune system allows drivers to use their smartphones to access onscreen Web information such as weather reports or stock quotes, send texts, Tweet or post to Facebook. Other manufacturers are producing cars with complex electronic features and complicated controls. For example, the 2011 BMW 750i requires six steps and ten seconds to manually tune a radio station frequency, using voice commands and rotating a controller knob.
For some car manufacturers, such as Toyota, offering more, unrestricted complex technology for drivers represents a departure from the past. In older Lexus RX350 and 400h models, drivers were locked out of most functions, initiating calls and GPS mapping, while the vehicle was moving. But automakers say that drivers are already using those functions via smartphones. So why not offer the same features with voice interaction or touch screens and buttons in vehicles.
As car manufacturers struggle to balance safety with technology and marketing, results in a 2006 Virginia Tech study of car crashes should be considered. The study found that driver inattention played a role in 80 percent of accidents, five years ago when technology was less prevalent. With driver distraction currently a significant issue, expanding in-car technology and electronics available to drivers in motion increases the likelihood that the rate at which serious accidents and injuries occur will dramatically increase.
Many experts agree that automakers, under pressure to place in-car electronics in vehicles to increase sales, are not making safety a high-level priority. Experts worry that drivers are using their eyes, hands and brains in such a way that competes with driving. Self-regulation does not work as people don’t have the skills or intuition to monitor whether they are running red lights or driving erratically because they are distracted.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently evaluating in-car technology to develop criteria to assist automakers gauge the risks in their systems. Results should be available later this year.