From the first day that cars came off the small Ford Motor Co. assembly line in 1903, drivers have dealt with distractions. Both human nature and the advancements of automotive technology introduce distractions. Technology might also eliminate some distractions, but it cannot govern behavior. Distinguishing between these two classes of distractions and governing behavior is the responsibility of each individual behind the wheel.
Of course, the distracted driver of today faces both similarities and differences from the world of 1903. However, only in the last few years has the "distracted driver issue" entered into the public eye and the legislative mind. Technology-based distractions seem to be receiving more than their share of this attention, particularly cell phone usage.
Accidents caused by distracted drivers are drawing state and national legislative bodies into the fray. Last summer, the state of New York became the first to pass legislation banning talking on handheld cell phones while driving. However, a recent study of 32,000 accidents by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety found wireless phones were not the major contributor to distraction-caused accidents. Car cell-phone usage was blamed in only 1.5 percent of all accidents. The largest percentage of distraction-caused accidents included "drivers . . . most often distracted by something outside their vehicle (29.4 percent) followed by adjusting a radio or CD player (11.4 percent). Other specific distractions included talking with other occupants (10.9 percent), adjusting vehicle or climate controls (2.8 percent), eating or drinking (1.7 percent), cell-phone use (1.5 percent) and smoking (0.9 percent)." From these findings, car audio equipment appears to cause seven-and-a-half times the accidents that cell phone use causes.
With the advent of wireless communications innovations such as Bluetooth technology, the emerging telematics space invites electronic device innovation from automotive, communications, multimedia and computing technology companies. These devices are heading straight into the dashboard. Will they take the attention of drivers off the road? Will they improve safety? Will they minimize distractions?
New devices-including cell phones, personal digital assistants, navigation systems, wireless Internet appliances and entertainment systems-sport display and human-input interfaces such as touchscreens, keypads or keyboards. It is in the human interface to these devices where the potential problem with device distraction lies. Drivers who take their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel are surely drivers who are more distracted.
The development of voice recognition technology has, to date, met with limited, if not little, success. A major obstacle is the lack of inexpensive microprocessor power to effectively recognize and translate voice commands into electronic signals. From a human-factors perspective, another area inhibiting successful voice recognition is microphone placement inside the automobile. In a typical car design, microphones are placed over 12 inches away from the driver's head. This distance introduces road noise picked up by the microphone and compounds interference with the recognition of commands.
Significant improvements in the microprocessor size/performance/cost ratio are advancing speech recognition in a quantum fashion. Perhaps voice command control is a more immediate reality. With those developments, the missing link appears to no longer be a "digital problem," and can be answered by technologies such as Bluetooth. Prototype Bluetooth offerings for the automobile may show up in models this year that connect users to on-board computing devices via wireless links. Such convergence technologies could answer both distraction and performance issues.
What if you're in your car and the cell phone rings? Prompted by a voice command such as "Answer phone," the computer in the car responds to the command and connects to your cell phone via Bluetooth. The call is routed through the on-board microphone and car stereo to give you hands-free communication while driving.
The future is bright for Bluetooth, but some implementation difficulties remain. The hope for Bluetooth is to be a universally compatible and interoperable protocol that permits any device to talk to another Bluetooth device. The reality is that many vendors interpret the specification differently, possibly causing connection and compatibility problems.
Several new profiles are still in the final stages of ratification by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). Problems can occur when a profile definition changes or evolves. Good underlying architectures can help reduce those problems, but still present a sizable amount of engineering labor.Consumers want products that are relatively simple, fast and affordable. With good device design, these technologies can eliminate distractions.