Are the government’s concerns about distracted driving on a collision course with auto manufacturer’s response to consumer demand for more in-car connectivity? That’s a bad pun, perhaps, but it pretty well sums up the situation. However, auto manufacturers are hurrying to supply innovative technological solutions to address the problem.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, David Strickland, are on a mission to end distracted driving. Strickland went on record earlier this month: “I’m just putting everyone on notice. A car is not a mobile device.” He draws a very careful distinction between technology that makes cars safer, and in-car technology for entertainment and non-emergency communications.
Their concern is based on 2009 U.S. Department of Transportation statistics:
• 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 injured in U.S. motor vehicle crashes – 20 percent of injury crashes – were related to distracted driving. Of those, 995 were reported due to cell phone use.
• Drivers using hand-held devices were four times as likely to get into injury-causing crashes.
• Certain studies show using a cell phone while driving – even hands-free – has the same effect as having a .08 blood alcohol concentration. Colorado’s limit for Driving While Ability Impaired is .05; Driving Under the Influence is .08.
Distracted driving includes texting, using a cell phone as well as eating, drinking, talking to passengers, or anything else that takes eyes or attention off the road or hands off the wheel.
Auto manufacturers face a real balancing act. Consumers clearly want more automotive technology options. Government regulators aren’t concerned about technology, like GM’s OnStar or Mercedes’ Mbrace that provide drivers a way to call for emergency help. But they are concerned about “infotainment” options that enable drivers to text message, update Twitter and Facebook through voice-activated Wi-Fi, and search for shops and restaurants with GPS, among other things.
Ford has been an in-car technology leader. Earlier this year Ford determined that when customers were offered its SYNC in-vehicle connectivity option, 80 percent bought it. Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Mini, Nissan and Toyota all now offer integrated infotainment systems and others will follow. To transportation safety officials, this represents a clear distracted driving danger.
Manufacturers are rushing to find equally effective safety solutions. For example, Volvo already offers “Pedestrian Detection with Full Auto Brake” on its S60 model. Using radar and a camera it automatically brakes when it senses a pedestrian.
An NHTSA report last year said that these “Intelligent Automobile” systems “… potentially address 81 percent of all light-vehicle crashes involving unimpaired drivers.” The technology uses sensors and transmitters to pinpoint cars’ locations in relation to other vehicles and warn drivers with buzzers and flashing red lights. It could be commercially available as early as 2015.
There’s a lot more in the works. Here are just a few possibilities:
• Networked cars emitting signals to deliver real-time traffic, weather and accident data. This advances the already-available systems that use sensors to parallel park and automatically brake when a collision is imminent. It also could reduce traffic idling, potentially saving money and energy.
• Crash mitigation through networked cars with sensor technology that automatically repositions cars before a crash to provide better protection for passengers. For example, spinning a car around so that a potentially deadly head-on collision becomes a less-serious rear-ender.
• “Adaptive cruise control” that adjusts to slower cars ahead, checks for lane openings and steers around slower cars, even grouping cars into “platoons” like freight trains, so drivers can do other things while their cars move toward their destinations.
• “Talking” parking lots that will indicate when and where a place opens up, avoiding wasted time and gas.
• The driverless car. Google is pioneering this technology and its prototypes already have logged thousands of miles on public highways.
Of course, technology comes with a price tag. Americans are already hard-hit by the recession and higher gas prices. Sales of smaller cars are up, but recent sales figures indicate that even when consumers buy subcompacts to save on gas, the demand for comfort and technological bells and whistles is strong.