Shut up and drive: The menace that is mobile technology

I like my toys behind the wheel as much as everyone else. Between my GPS, iPod, BlackBerry, and DVD player, I've got enough technology to avoid getting lost, stay entertained, stay connected, and keep my seat-belted kids from beating each other silly. I have no idea how my Luddite parents survived the Dark Ages before in-car electronics, and I'm not sure I ever really want to know.

Before setting off on a drive, it takes me about five minutes to get all my doo-dads connected and working. My wife, bless her, usually gives me a small grace period for fiddling before her patience wears thin.

Wakeup call from a trucker

After a particularly harrowing experience on the highway yesterday, I'm seriously considering turning them all off for good. While cruising along at an easy 70 mph and minding my own business in the middle lane, I heard what sounded like a gunshot. Straight ahead of me, the shredded tread from an obviously just-exploded tire flew out from under the trailer of an 18-wheeler in the right lane and rapidly closed in on my windshield.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)I did my best Michael Schumacher impression as I aggressively tossed the wondervan into the left lane and watched the flailing piece of rubber disappear to the right side of the car. Small pieces of debris bounced off of the hood as if to reinforce just how close we had come to having a really bad day.

After the adrenalin rush subsided and I was able to explain to the kids why I had just introduced them to the wonders of high-g maneuvering on a public highway, I thought about the amount of time I had to avoid disaster -- namely none -- and what might have happened had I instead been busy with my GPS, my iPod, my BlackBerry or the kids' DVD player. It wouldn't have been pretty.

The long arm of the law

My home province, Ontario, just enacted a law that bans the use of handheld electronics at the wheel. Effective now, drivers here aren't allowed to hold a cell phone to their ear, fiddle with an iPod, touch their GPS, or even text their mothers-in-law. As part of sweeping changes to eliminate accidents caused by distracted drivers, the provincial government is cracking down on any behind-the-wheel activity that takes the driver's eyes off the road. If a cop catches you not using a hands-free device or otherwise playing with your toys instead of devoting your full attention to piloting your vehicle, it'll cost you.

Good. Because if I had been skipping to the next song on my iPod when the tire just ahead of me decided to let go with a bang, I might be writing this from a very different place.

As scared straight as I am by yesterday's experience, I'm concerned that I'm screaming into the wind. Our collective desire for mobile gadgets reached the insatiable stage years ago, and is probably somewhere near scarily-addictive by now. What alarms me about the industry's apparent fascination with in-car electronics is its unwillingness to consider the potential dark side of this trend.

In recent years, vendors have been falling all over themselves with glee as miniaturization, integration, and economies of scale all converged on the automotive space. Thanks largely to Moore's Law, devices and capabilities that may once have been too large, expensive, feature-deficient, or cumbersome to build into a car have suddenly become feasible and affordable for pretty much everyone. The average family vehicle -- long a technological dead zone of half-melted cassettes and dusty AAA maps -- is suddenly a prime target for the latest mobile gadgets, and drivers are only too happy to buy in.

Saving the car industry, one option at a time

Car manufacturers, desperate for anything approaching profitability in the wake of their recessionary near-death/government-bailout experience, increasingly see in-car electronics as something approaching salvation. Adding $2,000 in-car nav systems and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to virtually every model in the range allows carmakers to pad margins and drive recurring revenue (what, you thought those wireless subscriptions were free?) in an era where selling the basic car is no longer enough to guarantee survival.

But just because you can sell the giant screen that drops down from the ceiling so your kids can watch Dora the Explorer over a satellite link doesn't necessarily mean you should. On the last van I test-drove, the screen blocked the rear-view mirror for taller drivers, and the interface for getting it to work forced some parents to divert their attention away from the road while they tried desperately to get Dora back. On that same vehicle, the in-car nav -- part of a $2,500 option package -- was mounted relatively low in the center stack and used so many small buttons around the screen that even the supposedly well-trained sales rep gave up in frustration. And she was parked in the driveway.

As much as modern drivers like to pack their cars with the equivalent of a data center's worth of computing power, the sad truth is that little of it contributes to the act of driving safely, while much of it actually inhibits one's ability to keep one's vehicle between the lanes and in one piece. I've always known this somewhat logically, of course, but it was driven home when I realized just how close we all came to being smacked by an errant piece of road debris. When it happened, I was doing everything my driving instructor taught me to do, including looking down the road and actively watching for any trouble. The car I had just passed, whose driver may or may not have been texting her mother-in-law? I'm betting she wasn't.

At some point, our fascination with all things technological needs to align in some form with the basic physics of everyday life. At some point, someone we know will be on the wrong end of a texting driver or a Dora-finding parent, and by then it may be too late to wonder why we never bothered to check our unabashed adoration of in-car electronics at the door.

Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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