Consumer Confidential: Carmakers’ Focus on Connected Lifestyle May Lead to Distracted Driving
Ford and Fiat Chrysler apparently have concluded that safety takes a back seat to amusement when it comes to pleasing drivers.
The two carmakers announced last week amid the hoopla of the CES consumer-electronics show in Las Vegas that state-of-the-art infotainment systems in new vehicles will include both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Ford’s system “allows customers to bring the smartphone technology they’re comfortable with into a vehicle and use it without hassle,” said Don Butler, who heads the company’s connectivity initiatives.
He said the in-car technology, dubbed Sync, makes it easy for drivers “to maintain a connected lifestyle no matter their choice of smartphone, apps or services inside and outside their vehicle.”
Except for one itty-bitty, teeny-weeny thing.
That connected lifestyle is incredibly dangerous behind the wheel.
A recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety showed that fiddling with an in-car infotainment system can leave a driver distracted for as long as 27 seconds, which, when you think about it, is an eternity when barreling down the freeway at 70 mph. Even voice-controlled systems, the study found, can cause drivers to take their mind off the road for alarmingly long stretches.
“The lasting effects of mental distraction pose a hidden and pervasive danger that would likely come as a surprise to most drivers,” foundation President Peter Kissinger said. “The results indicate that motorists could miss stop signs, pedestrians and other vehicles while the mind is readjusting to the task of driving.”
The study was conducted at just 25 mph. That meant drivers traveled the length of almost three football fields before once again wrapping their heads around the idea that they’re responsible for about 3,000 pounds of rolling steel.
Limiting button pushing and screen swiping to stops at red lights? Just as hazardous, researchers found.
“The reality is that mental distractions persist and can affect driver attention even after the light turns green,” said Marshall Doney, AAA’s chief executive.
Carmakers say they’re just giving people the technology they crave.
“We are continuing to minimize the everyday stresses of busy lifestyles by providing drivers with a variety of ways to stay conveniently connected to their vehicles,” Joni Christensen, head of marketing for Fiat Chrysler’s Uconnect system, said in a statement.
She said the carmaker’s goal was to make “every drive exceptionally informative, entertaining and unique.”
To be sure, not all infotainment systems are equally risky. AAA gave high marks to the system in the Chevy Equinox crossover, which it said is sufficiently intuitive and responsive to make it only a little more distracting than talking on a phone.
The most troublesome system, it said, was that of the Mazda 6 sedan, which required so many steps to operate that it was deemed about as challenging as taking a scientific test.
AAA’s Doney said carmakers should focus on developing infotainment systems that are no more demanding than a car radio or audio book.
Mobile entertainment is certainly a big, big deal. There’s no denying that consumers want to stay connected to their texts, tweets, Facebook posts, music, TV shows, movies and other life-affirming content on a second-by-second basis.
At the risk of sounding all get-off-my-lawn, I don’t count the constant distractions of mobile devices as being among society’s greatest advances. I think it’s a good thing when people are aware of their surroundings, rather than keeping their eyes locked onto little screens.
And driving, needless to say, is exactly the wrong time to feed people’s digital addictions. We’ve all been stuck behind distracted drivers who slow way down or weave between lanes while trying to text.
This will all change one day. In coming years, Google and others tell us, cars will drive themselves and we’ll just kick back and enjoy the ride. A monster infotainment system will be essential.
But we’re not there yet — not even close. So all these cars rolling off assembly lines with gee-whiz digital gadgetry are, literally, ahead of their time. They reflect a tantalizing promise of driverless infotainment pleasures while failing to acknowledge that there’s still a human being trying to survive a journey from Point A to Point B.
It’s like equipping vehicles with mini bars or TV sets. Riding in the back of a limo, with nothing else to do, that might be a fine idea. In the front seat, while maneuvering through what can charitably be called an obstacle course, it’s insane.
“It is insane,” said Rosemary Shahan, founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a Sacramento, Calif., advocacy group. “We already have a huge problem with distracted driving, and they’re just adding to that.”
Worse, she said, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has declared that driverless vehicles should be equipped with steering wheels and pedals so that passengers can take control if the autonomous technology goes kaput.
“How are you going to do that if you’re watching a sporting event or checking stock quotes?” Shahan asked. “If you’re not paying attention to the road, you’re probably going to get killed.”
It’s illegal in most states to watch TV while driving — that is, actually operating a vehicle, as opposed to repeat viewings of SpongeBob DVDs from the back seat.
You have to wonder how sophisticated front-seat infotainment systems have to become before lawmakers realize that there’s little distinction between the active temptations of the touch screen and the passive distraction of a TV set.
Ford and Fiat Chrysler have now joined General Motors, Hyundai and other carmakers in ensuring that their vehicles have the technology that consumers are jonesing for. As Ford says, it’s a triumph for the connected lifestyle.
Think for a moment how much you appreciate it when someone enjoys their connected lifestyle at a movie theater or restaurant, or walking slowly, head down, across an intersection or along a crowded sidewalk.
Now think about your daily commute.
You good with that?
David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at david.lazaruslatimes.com.