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Car Makers Want Safety Gear to Keep Media-Distracted Drivers Safe

Here's a brand-new meme. I got this from a friend on the pr side, who is an alert watcher for new things. Briefly, he told me that the penetration of wideband Internet social networking and entertainment into the automobile cabin is inevitable. We could fight it, he said, but as practical engineers, it would make more sense for us to accept the inevitable and develop safety features that would protect the users of those new features from themselves.

Well, we do a lot of that already, developing new products to protect us from other new products. This is particularly true in the automotive world. One could just look at this product concept as an extension of seat belts, airbags, ABS, and traction control systems.

We may be the at the next stage all ready. You may have seen this moderately viral Youtube video, apparently from France, in which a guy with a sack over his head drives a Volvo haphazardly around a wide test track that is randomly studded with department store mannequins. He swerves and speeds all around the test track, until he seems to be heading correctly for one of the dummies. Just before impact, the car takes over and makes a panic stop just inches from the torso.

That demo isn't even too far beyond what's already available in many new cars. Last year, I could have ordered my Prius with features that would have maintained a safe distance behind the car ahead of me while I was bopping along on cruise control. Some Prii and other new cars will even parallel-park for you automatically -- something my grandmother could have used. (Apparently, someone once told her that the way to parallel park was, "just keep backing up until you hear a noise.")

Actually she was quite a driver for someone born in the 1800s. She learned on a stick shift in the 1920s and insisted that she could just never get the hang of these new-fangled automatic transmissions, so she double-clutched until the day we took her 1961 Ford Falcon away from her. My father told me about driving behind her when she got her first car with turn signals. She would signal right and turn left; signal left and turn right. When he asked her later about that, she said she thought that flashing the tail light on one side of the car or the other was to tell the driver behind her "C'mon around this side, I'm turning the other way."

So that's what worries me about us engineers dreaming up safety features that will keep drivers distracted by some future social media fad from crashing into each other. I'm afraid that there are too many more drivers out there like my grandmother, who can think of highly original ways to apply Murphy's law to safety systems, than I would prefer to be among.

More seriously, I shiver to think of the transition period -- that time when there might be some cars equipped with nothing more than today's primitive safety components, puttering along on the same roads as the latest cars with heaven only knows what aural and visual distractions inside them, being driven by people who are counting on some new electronics to keep them out of the morgue. To me, that sounds like a make-work program for tort lawyers. (And I'm not sure which kind of car I would have preferred to have my grandmother driving in that mix. Her thinking pattern was unique, but she could keep herself out of trouble.)

Of the other hand, this new meme could be a heaven sent opportunity for design engineers in all disciplines. (That would, of course, include the design of medical instrumentation and extraction gear for first responders.)

Comments welcome.

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