While I was abroad Randall Stross wrote a good piece in the New York Times (here or below the jump), in which I was quoted briefly, about Chrysler’s plan to equip its cars with WiFi internet access.
Given that the car manufacturers worked carefully to come up with standards for things like restricting the number of commands that could be used on nav systems while driving, it seems to me extremely negligent that they would then essentially toss that caution out the window to enable full-on internet surfing in their cars.
Unlike simple information gauges in the car, the laptop screen offers a much more immersive environment, in any number of ways: the small size of the display information, the richness and complexity of the information, the necessity to scroll through various screens, the location of the computer away from the windshield, the potential to input responses, even the slow download speeds, which might cause the driver to keep looking to see if it’s finished, etc. Lord knows how they would type and do that quaint thing that we used to call simple, non-distracted, driving.
As an example of what internet surfing would mean on the road, just imagine, in the amount of time it took you to read this sentence, you’d have traveled, if moving only at 30 mph, nearly 100 feet — imagine if you were going 70?
Chrysler says this is meant only for backseat use, presumably by children, etc., spending an ever greater portion of their childhood development strapped into the back of so-called “living rooms on wheels,” and apparently ever desiring of non-stop connectivity lest their dwindling attention spans suffer a flameout. An easy way for Chrysler to defray criticism would be to simply allow the service to only be enabled while the car isn’t in motion, as one sees with in-car DVD systems. That is a sane and useful service. I’m curious to see how the liability on this will shake out — I do know if I got t-boned by someone who was updating their MySpace page on Chrysler-provided bandwidth I’d go looking for the deep pockets in a lawsuit. Yes, drivers should be responsible for their actions, but given the myriad ways things can already go wrong on the road, why should the car-maker expand the options with its options?
There’s any number of reasons why this move only makes sense in the world of a struggling car-maker seeking anything it can to distinguish its product in a hostile environment (and have thus made the driving environment more hostile). The car manufacturers used to be rightly criticized for skimping when it came to producing safe cars. They’ve come a long way towards putting that history behind them — cars in and of themselves are less dangerous for their occupants — so it’s all the more puzzling to me that they would suddenly put the car in reverse, as it were.
I also told Mr. Stross this: “Apart from the safety issues, which are huge — this idea is, to paraphrase Ralph Nader, unsafe at any download speed — the presence of the internet connected computer in the car raises the specter of an even more unpleasant driving experience than the one we’re currently in, in which people on those same phones tend to forget they’re in a public space, with legal rules and expected norms of behavior, and fail to signal, take longer to pull away at lights, and generally annoy the drivers who are, gasp, actually driving… Drivers are already in their own private cocoons, that they would be checking their “Myspace” page hints at a further fragmentation from the public space of the road.”
[UPDATE: Randy Stross sends along this link to an early candidate for this year's Darwin Awards.]