Consumer Electronics 2015: Beyond Distraction, Making Drivers Blind and Stupid

Posted on January 16, 2015

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Last weekend, the Consumer Electronics Show rolled out more examples of jet-fighter-style heads-up displays (HUDs) for car windshields. Fittingly, perhaps, last weekend also saw a nearly 200-car pileup in both directions of I-94 in Michigan.

HUDs are sexy, glitzy, futuristic, badass. Marketers compare the automotive versions to the displays jet fighter pilots have. Advocates claim they are safer than looking down at your instrument panel or at your phone, since they keep you looking straight ahead. But cars are not fighter jets. Pilot training aside, the environment is completely different: aircraft generally have miles of horizontal separation as well as hundreds of feet of vertical separation in the skies. Cars are crowded into tight, high-speed channels with relatively little maneuvering room, where a moment’s distraction or an unexpected obstacle results in pile-ups like last weekend’s 193-vehicle disaster on I-94 in Michigan, in which 133 westbound drivers apparently piled up due to gawking at an earlier 60-car pileup in the eastbound lanes, which was attributed to poor driving behavior: following too closely in poor conditions.

You’d think that the lesson we need to learn from such a massive pile-up is: PAY FULL ATTENTION TO THE ROAD. With your eyes. With your brain. But no, what electronics manufacturers have learned is: people like to check Facebook while they drive, so let’s help them do that! The new star of the distracted-driving world? The automotive Heads-Up Display.

There is just so much wrong with this whole concept.

Right off the bat, there is the issue of obstructing drivers’ windshields, especially with after-market devices that feature suction cups or bulky frames or items hanging from the rearview mirror. More than half of US states legally prohibit any obstruction of the windshield, yet the whole point of a HUD is to put information right in the driver’s line of sight. Remember the controversy over Google Glass and distracted driving? HUDs are no different from using Google Glass to follow directions, say, or – as NPR reports – to read paragraph after paragraph of text about some historic object you just passed, instead of actually looking at and thinking about the road ahead of you. An upright head and forward-looking eyes are useless if your brain is off doing something else.

Then there are features like the “ghost car” which is supposed to float in front of you so you can follow it for directions or parking.   Does the ghost car know about traffic lights, pedestrians, construction zones or traffic stopped in front of you? Nope, that’s your responsibility. But if you’re busy following the ghost car, will you even see any of that other stuff? Or notice it only after you run over several pedestrians and T-bone another car in an intersection?

Speaking of ghost cars, here’s a distracting device with no redeeming value: a large, clunky after-market HUD whose sole purpose is to allow you to “race” yourself. Yeah, this is what we all need: something dangling in front of our faces that not only distracts us, but encourages us to drive faster.

Another device that creeps me out is the Navdy, a device that basically displays your phone’s various functions on an after-market HUD. “The notifications you want from the apps you love!” – including such critically urgent things as Facebook, Twitter, texting, or your calendar. Check out their website: it is intended to convince you that the Navdy does not compromise safety; but looking at the photos tells me otherwise. Here’s Mom calling just as you are approaching a curve overlooking a cliff on the scenic-yet-notorious Pacific Coast Highway.

Navdy-cliff

Here’s Adam bugging you about coffee just as you are approaching a pedestrian and passing some bicyclists.  Read Adam’s note.  While you are doing that, do you really see the pedestrian?

Navdy-coffee

And here’s their reminder that holding your phone up in front of you prevents you from focusing on the road. You know what? So do HUDs.

Navdy-focus

Or how about a Sirius subscription service to visually display things like sports scores and movie listings, as well as weather and traffic? Was there something wrong with getting these things over the radio instead of cluttering up the windshield with stuff to read while driving?

Then you have the “safety” features of these HUDs. Things like, say, collision warnings. If you need a special alarm and a bunch of blinking red lights to tell you that you’re about to wreck, then you have no business whatsoever driving a car. Just hand the keys to someone else now, and slide on over to the passenger seat.

In the end, all these distractions – and drivers’ general refusal to put their damn devices away and actually, you know, DRIVE – may accelerate the coming shift to driverless cars. Indeed, I can foresee a time when driverless cars will be mandated, as human drivers will be seen as too fallible and too dangerous to be trusted with the operation of a vehicle at high speeds.

Maybe that’s what more and more people want, ultimately. To abdicate all personal involvement with the outside world, and to step into an automated mobile cocoon, trusting a complex system of satellites, computers, and mechanical devices to deliver them to their destination without any need for them to know where they are or much of anything else, entertaining them along the way.

Is this what we really want or need? To be less and less connected to the real world, to have computers telling us more and more about what’s around us instead of using our own sense and senses, as if we were blind and deaf, perhaps of extremely low intelligence, or somehow not even present in the real world? Sorry, I’m just not that trusting of technology. Things break. There are viruses, code corruption, mechanical breakdowns, solar flares, and just plain old mistakes in programming. All those drivers that we laugh at now for blindly following their GPS into lakes, through barricades, or over cliffs? In the future, those will be the cocooned occupants of self-driving cars following the same GPS directions.

 

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