Soon, highways users may have more than makeup-applying, cell-phone-blabbing, minivan-driving soccer moms to contend with.
As an avid rider and motorcycle safety instructor who relies on two wheels as my main mode of transport, I am keenly aware of the danger lurking on today's roads. Newspaper-reading yuppies. Coffee-slurping slackers. Text-messaging GenY-ers. And, soon, folks searching and browsing the web -- from their cars. While driving. Ouch. It goes to show what I've always said... if a technology is possible, someone will implement it, no matter how misguided or stupid.
Five days ago, a company called ATX Group unveiled a technology called Browse By Voice™ that will allow drivers to search the web hands-free from the comfort of their cars. In 2001, ATX partnered with Mercedes-Benz to introduce the first Web-based information service into a production vehicle, but now is looking to deploy their Browse By Voice service to the rest of us cage-rattling peons. And they intend to expand the platform to allow for hands-free text messaging, composing email, and social network management. "What I'm Doing Right Now: I have no clue, but some guy on an Electra-Glide just gave me the finger..." Great, just great.
I don't know what dents my rims more -- the obvious inherent danger to users and to those with whom they share the road, or the company's obliviousness to it.
According to a company spokeswank:
"When we do any kind of speech-enabled service in the car, we have to be very aware of driver distraction. And the key is to keep it simple and allow the driver to focus on driving, which means eyes on the road, hands on the steering wheel... You can speak something and glance at a display without being distracted."
Huh?!? Yeah, eyes on the road, hands on the wheel is definitely good. But how about mentally focusing on the act of driving while you're at it? Numerous studies have shown that drivers who talk on cell phones perform as poorly (or worse) in driving safety tests than drivers who are legally intoxicated. What's more, these studies show that in almost all cases, the use of a hands-free device made no measurable difference in the results.
Operating a motor vehicle of any kind is much more a skill of the eyes and mind than of the hands and feet. Pouring over search results on a screen, SMS-ing your girlfriend, or updating your Twitter status -- all while wrestling with a speech-driven interface (well all know how glitch-free those are, right?) -- is tantamount to playing Russian roulette with a 4,000 pound gun; and anyone who drives, rides, or uses the sidewalk is in the line of fire. Automobiles are meant for getting from point A to point B efficiently and in one piece, not as an extension of your digital lifestyle, okay?
Only in car-obsessed America could such folly be conceived. Back in the 90s, American dealers of high-end Euro imports like Mercedes and BMW complained to manufacturers that among the main buyer objections was a lack of cupholders. Engineers, in turn, were puzzled. "Why would anyone want cupholders in a high-performance sportscar?" they wondered. You see, in Europe, where in many places 100 miles per hour is the slow lane, drivers get it. They truly appreciate the act of driving -- really driving -- and they take it dead seriously, because it is. Americans, on the other hand, seem bent on making the driving experience feel like they're still sitting in their La-Z-Boys in front of the ol' media center-connected flat screen.
Hey, I love the Web. I make my my living on the Web. I firmly believe the Web is a boon to humanity, and the more ubiquitous it becomes, the better. But there are places where the Web shouldn't be intruding, and the driver's seat is one of them. The speech-enabled-GPS-equipped-Web-surfing-social-network-aware-heads-up-display automobile of the very near future scares the crap out of me. I sure hope they remember to put windows in them.
In the motorcycle safety classes I teach, one of the bits of defensive-riding advice I often give students is to "ride like you're invisible", because to a distracted driver, you might as well be. Sadly, it looks as though we're about to get a whole lot more invisible.
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