Electronic Design

The Distraction Factor

We're realizing more and more that our vehicles and what we do in them is distracting. The number of accidents resulting from distractions has risen over the past several years, mainly due to the heavy use of cell phones. Talking on a cell phone is as much of a distraction as trying to fry bacon on a hot plate on the front seat of your car. We have always been distracted by our eating and smoking as well as the radio or tape/CD. Backseat TVs in vans and SUVs also disturb us unless headphones are used. Some drivers even put on makeup, shave, or read the paper on the road. Weighty conversations, arguments with passengers, and scolding of children all take a toll on our attention.

But, the intelligent automobile is about to take us to a whole new level of distraction. While one of the tenets of the Intelligent Transportation System is safety, the telematics and intelligent highway features could actually put us at risk.

The in-dash LCD navigation screens showing up in many cars are a major distraction. I recently drove several cars with this option. It not only distracted me, it also made me wonder how I could ever follow the map and drive at the same time. Telematics systems can be distracting too, as some of these systems contain LCD screens and keyboards for programming and selecting functions. The new digital satellite radios will have LCD screens with music information and eventually traffic data to read as well.

But the ultimate distraction will be the Internet. Most telematics systems and third-generation (3G) cell phones have data capability with access to the Web, e-mail, and e-commerce sites. And don't forget the video capability of the 3G phones either. Can in-car videoconferencing be far behind? It's hard to believe that people would browse the Web, access e-mail, or use video systems while driving. But given the capability, many will do it simply because of the "coolness" factor. In any case, we really are going to need airbags and the automatic "911" calling feature if we add too many further distractions.

The solution lies in good design, plus voice recognition and text-to-speech. Good design dictates nondistracting ergonomics or even lock-out features that prevent usage unless the vehicle is stopped. Voice recognition will solve many of the problems, as most people can actually speak and drive at the same time. Modern speech-recognition systems are very capable and easily permit phone dialing, calling up new functions, making radio or CD changes, and accessing e-mail. The text-to-speech feature will give drivers data in verbal form, further minimizing distractions. If we don't factor in these safety measures ourselves, our friendly federal, state, or city governments are likely to restrict the use of all this great new technology or even make its use against the law. Restrictions already exist in some localities. Will the next mandate be that all drivers must have a licensed co-pilot/navigator?

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