If you've kept up with coverage of the 2012 Detroit Auto Show and the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show, you know that auto technology is undergoing some dramatic changes. True, flying cars and plasma drives are still a bit further down the road, but the way we interact with our vehicles today is miles from what it used to be.
However, with all these changes and improvements come countless dangers -- notably, the danger of distracted driving. Once upon a time, the biggest preoccupations for drivers involved keeping the kids quiet in the back seat or finding the right button on the 8-track player. Now, we have phone calls, text messages, emails, and apps to juggle.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has been very vocal about his desire to curb distracted driving and limit drivers' access to mobile phones. Automakers are trying to develop technology to address such concerns, while simultaneously acknowledging that mobile phones are an important part of modern life.
We've taken a long, hard look at the offerings on view Detroit and elsewhere, and from where we sit, there are six possible solutions to the problem of distracted driving:
1. Turning off the phone: Fat chance. We can't even get our moms to stop texting, and they grew up using rotary-dials and drinking bromides. You think their grandkids are going to willingly put down their mobiles? Only if they're automatically disabled -- which sounds like a recipe for shrinking sales and potential lawsuits.
2. Better smartphone integration: Nearly every car on the road these days can be integrated with a smartphone. Even older models can be retrofitted with a stereo system offering an auxiliary jack for listening to tunes and such. But phones are small, and interacting with them requires a lot of squinting and looking down. Plus, they're handheld, and they tend to do terrible things, like tumble to the floor. Until someone amends the law of gravity, using the smartphone as a command center will be an imperfect solution, no matter how great the interface or pairing mechanism may be.
3. Voice control: This is probably the most popular solution to distracted driving that's being bandied about today, since many believe that controlling infortainment and other systems by voice command is less distracting than using touch screens. (Even LaHood is comfy with the idea of hands-free calls -- at least for now.) Voice-controlled systems have been gaining in popularity in recent years, boosted in part by the launch of the iPhone 4S and the Siri personal assistant. Many in-car systems from Ford SYNC to the upcoming Cadillac CUE are capable of responding to spoken commands.
But voice control raises some concerns -- and not just because people are worried about embedding a HAL 9000 unit in their dashboards. Studies have shown that hands-free calling is no safer than making phone calls with a handheld device. Translation: anytime you're talking, whether it's to a caller or your car, it's a distraction. Moreover, voice recognition in its current state is far from perfect, so users often have to repeat themselves, which can make the technology more frustrating, cumbersome, and distracting.
4. Gestural control: First, came the Wii, then the Xbox Kinect, and now, people can't get enough of gestural technology. There's the idea that somehow waving a hand or poking a finger is somehow safer than reaching over and flipping a dial. And that, of course, is ridiculous. For all the problems inherent to voice-recognition, at least calling out commands lets drivers keep both hands on the wheel.
5. Heads-up displays: This technology is so new, we're not prepared to make a call on it just yet. However, as beautiful as tech like the Mercedes-Benz augmented reality windshield may be, it seems a little intrusive.
6. Autonomous vehicles: This is the holy grail of vehicle technology, and if/when it rolls out, it would effectively make distracted driving a non-issue. We'll tell our cars where we want to go, and they'll get us there, while we kick back and enjoy a nice half hour of Farmville. Or a nap.
Google is testing its autonomous vehicles now, and other rides -- like GM's EN-V concept -- have similar technology embedded. But self-driving vehicles are a long way off. Not only does the technology require a lot of development, but roadways require a good bit of infrastructure improvements. After all, in order for cars to know when to slow down in traffic, they'll need to have an idea of when traffic lights are changing, to know when emergency vehicles are approaching, and so on.
As you can see, there's no perfect solution to the problem of distracted driving -- not yet, anyway. For now, the best we can do is to be aware of the dangers and to exert some self-control by putting our phones, tablets, and other distractions away.