The owner's manual for a Lexus GPS system I recently tested warned in boldface type: "Do not use any feature of this system to the extent it distracts you from safe driving." Carried out to its full lawyer-inspired meaning, that probably would require disconnecting the system.
I also was dismayed to encounter Beverly Hills Motoring's customized version of the Ford Expedition, which features not only two high-resolution TV monitors in the back of the front-seat headrests, but a third monitor in the dashboard facing the driver.
On a trip to Delphi Automotive Systems in Indiana, a $29 billion company that makes electronic components for automobiles, I found myself sitting in the deep leather seats of a Cadillac Seville. The next generation of mobile electronics was staring me in the face. Nestled in the Caddy's dash, where the radio would be, was AutoPC, a full-service unit that goes way, way beyond the systems seen in cars today. If you think cellphones are a distraction for the driver, just think of the attention this integrated system will demand. The prototype AutoPC at least makes an effort to reduce driver distraction. It receives email through a built-in modem and reads it back with a synthesized voice. It had a hands-free phone. It records and plays three-minute reminder memos from the driver. It has full GPS equipment, with maps of the entire United States. It can interact with an online service to deliver news and sports scores on demand — and it will read them aloud.
Ron Knockeart, vice president of Intelligent Transportation Systems for supplier Siemens Automotive, told Popular Mechanics in 1999 that within a decade, "Navigation and AutoPC technology will be installed in one-third of all cars sold in the United States."
Even if nobody will actually look at a screen while driving, these telematic features — even those designed, ironically enough, for added safety — can be dangerous. "The thing is, there is a limit to how much you can pay attention to, and people already are multitasking beyond the level of their abilities," says Stephanie Faul, communications director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "Once you pile on the distractions, who knows what kind of effect you will have?"
Carmakers chant a mantra that goes something like, "Both eyes on the road, both hands on the wheel," but people conditioned by a lifelong addiction to television have a tendency to look at a display screen when it's covered with moving images. Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, conducted a 1997 study on the effects cellphone usage has on driving. "Our data show that cellphone conversations decrease the ability to pay attention and drive safely, and those detrimental effects far outweigh the benefits," he said. The study showed that drivers using cellphones are four times as likely to get into a crash as drivers not using one.
Well, the car I'm driving this week, a Cadillac CTS, doesn't have AutoPC, and I limit my in-motion cellphone use, but I could get distracted by XM NavTraffic, the first "real time" satellite-based traffic information service for GPS systems. It's relatively simple to use. You plot your route, and XM Satellite Radio hooks you up to current information about the average speed of traffic on highways along your route. It identifies congestion, accidents and ongoing construction.
The system worked fine but offered so much useful information that it was hard not to scroll through the messages. Can you imagine plowing into a dump truck while reading about the construction crew ahead? I imagine the prudent thing to do is take a look at the route while safely ensconced in your driveway. If you order NavTraffic, you'll pay $9.99 a month, or you can get it bundled with XM Satellite Radio for $13.98 a month.