Friday, March 16, 2012

Distracted Driving From Outside the Lines

The recent U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) release of its guidelines on the topic of driver distraction has spurred a good deal of discussion in the media. The guidelines call for automakers to disable applications that allow drivers to manually access social media, surf the Web or send text messages while on the road.
All when and good. Very, very good in fact. Really, do we want drivers web surfing or reading text messages while driving?
But all of the attention is on infotainment systems. This focus on distracted driving as an opportunity to reexamine how vehicles communicate with drivers in general. Today's advanced vehicles are in one form or another continually talking to drivers, either with warning lights and tell-tales or through short and often difficult to interpret text messages. This growing phenomenon is being ignored by the DOT and manufacturers alike, and yet poses a similar if not more serious distraction threat.
Warning lights and indicators have long been the province of a vehicle's instrument panel and the preferred means of communication between the vehicle and its driver. An entire collection of automotive hieroglyphics has been developed and continues to be developed.
Now, vehicles with multifunction displays offer multiple screens to peer at while driving: text on navigation information, tire pressures, fuel consumption, telephone use, and more may be available. And each segment likely offers additional information through menu manipulation. These items are generally very easily accessed with controls mounted on the steering wheel, but the information displayed ultimately requires the driver's eyes to absorb.
Warning lights and indicators can already be problematic. Unless a driver has dealt with a malfunction in a given system in the past, the appearance of what will be an unfamiliar warning light can cause near panic. And with each new system comes a new tell-tale. The average driver simply does not have the time in a busy life to memorize all the various scenarios these indicators present. Thus when a new one appears, the question for the driver becomes 'is my car safe to drive?' That answer is rarely obvious and invariably leads to calls to roadside services or service departments.
And now, message screens are being employed to add instruction, explanation or general information on a vehicle's status. The idea is sound, but the implementation lies squarely at the center of the DOT's current concern.
The driver distraction debate is an opportunity to step back and reconsider the entire landscape. Vehicles are in constant communication with their drivers, and are becoming communication hubs, bringing information and entertainment from without.
Voice commands are in play and offer a path to follow. Perhaps it is time for vehicles themselves to be given a voice. And not just for reading text messages aloud. In theory, it could speak aloud the meaning of a given tell-tale so a lay person can understand, or the status of tire pressures on request, and so on.
Certainly there are challenges in implementation, from variations in definitions, requests to repeat or no longer repeat information, etc., but it is time to consider allowing a vehicle to communicate its status through 2-way voice interaction. Lets build a smarter car. The iPhone's Siri points the way.