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Eyes On The Road: New Tech Developments Diminish Distractions For Drivers

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Ford Sync wi-fi hotspot

Ford Sync wi-fi hotspot

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Here at TCC, we spend a lot of time reading and writing about roadway safety. In recent years, we've provided extensive coverage of distracted driving issues -- especially texting behind the wheel and more recently, in-car internet. Both are serious concerns (phone-related distractions caused 6,000 deaths and 500,000 injuries on U.S. roadways in 2008 alone), but it's become clear that banning the technology isn't the best solution to the problem. Instead, individuals and automakers have to adapt to this new, internet-everywhere environment through (a) driver education and (b) tech developments to minimize distractions. We're happy to report that progress is being made on at least one of those fronts.

Curtailed functionality, voice interaction

Ford's Sync system isn't perfect, but it does represent some of the smartest in-car technology we've seen to date. Not only does Sync offer a range of functions to drivers, but later versions also have built-in safety features that disable some of those functions (like playing videos) when the car is in gear. Those safeguards didn't stem from the request of some regulatory agency; they came from within the Sync team itself. That confirms what we'd already suspected: that companies can occasionally opt to curtail their offerings in the interest of consumer safety.

Sync and other telematics systems also offer voice interaction, which limits the amount of time that drivers have to take their eyes off the road when answering calls and changing the music on their MP3 players. Take a look at this chart (from Ford, via Mashable) that demonstrates how much more time voice-enabled systems allow drivers to focus on driving.

Distraction time of Ford Sync vs. handheld devices

Distraction time of Ford Sync vs. handheld devices

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As software evolves and telematics systems become commonplace in automobiles of all types, we hope to see these statistics improve. Apart from Ford, many other automakers like Jaguar and Volvo offer in-dash systems that integrate with cell phones and MP3 players -- and that's to say nothing of the countless aftermarket devices lining the shelves. Even better (for Ford's competitors anyway): Ford's exclusive development contract with Microsoft ended at the close of 2008, and competing Sync systems will soon be available in Kia, Hyundai, and other models.

Caveats

However, as much as we like features like self-limiting telematics systems and voice control, there are a couple of safety-related caveats:

1. Voice interaction is still dangerous. Studies have shown that talking on the phone while driving isn't any safer when the driver uses a hands-free system. The problem with taking a call at the wheel isn't the physical act of holding the phone to your ear; its the fact that your focus shifts to the person on the other end of the line -- even when your eyes are glued to the road. Voice control may look safer, but looks can be deceiving.

2. Some applications just don't belong behind the wheel. Take a look at this terrible/terrifying video of Ford's attempt to wrap Twitter functionality into Sync. For starters, the integration between phone and Twitter app and Sync and Bluetooth seems really iffy. (We've had more than a few problems just pairing our handhelds, so this demo seems like crazy talk.) Furthermore, the Sync window is lousy for Twitter management, and the voice readout of tweets is flat-out creepy. Ford should probably ditch this approach altogether and develop an app comparable to the one for Pandora. But more to the point, if drivers are so addicted to Twitter that they have to tweet behind the wheel, they probably shouldn't be behind the wheel in the first place. Is there a Twitter-addiction camp like that sex-addiction place Tiger Woods went to in Mississippi? If not, we smell a big business opportunity.


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Comments (7)
  1. Very nice to know that the Ford's Sync system is moving in the right direction to make your traveling with kids much more.... quiet!
     
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  2. I have never found the voice calling to work so well for me. Whats the point of even putting out a voice product that has no idea what the hell you are saying?
     
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  3. I bet that security guard that ended up in the creek after his hands-free cell scared him half to death would agree they can be distracting.
    At least he had a gun along to break the window and get out, I guess. Wonder when they'll start selling cars with hands-free guns?
    And skeptic: check out Ford's SYNC system. Recognizes everything perfectly in my experience.
     
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  4. I find that voice calling is definitely challenging in a car environment. blue tooth is still not perfect so i tend to use my earphone. I love that Ford is pushing the envelope as it comes to innovation- granted will take them a while to get the kinks out but still a very solid effort!!
     
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  5. Really, has everyone lost their mind? I simply refuse to talk to my friends if I perceive they're driving (easy; there's that half-second lag as they switch gears mentally) and then confirm it by asking. I'll call them back at a time & number of their choosing. Life is too precious. What part of "Don't talk on the phone in your car" don't these people understand? END OF STORY.
     
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  6. think the Ford Sync is directionally interesting. definitely agree, regardless of the advancements, talking in the car absolutely is / will always be distracting (particularly if it's a call in which tension/arguing/etc is involved :-) )
     
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  7. I have to agree with Snugger and then some. I'm an oddball who prefers to drive older cars. One of the reasons is simplicity. And that there are little to no distractions from the main reason to drive a car...to get where you want to go. And as safely as possible. My cell is only on if I am expecting a call, and while I do occasionally answer it on the road, it's short and only if there is little to no traffic around. Why people need video in an automobile just baffles me to no end. Do they need to be entertained during the 10 second stops in a traffic jam? Are people nowadays really that addicted to constant input from all the senses? If you need to talk on the phone in a busy area, pull over or use hands free. A talking dashboard would be the first thing I surgically remove from any vehicle I own, along with tone generators (formerly known as buzzers) and the 156 color instrument panel lights. These 'necessities' are probably the main reason I won't buy a new car. There are too many standard already. One that I would consider paying for however would be the paintball gun option, for use on the driver next to me oblivious to their car trying to swap paint with mine while texting on Facebook at 70 mph.
     
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