CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

This Information Superhighway Thing Is Getting a Bit Ridiculous

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.]

August 24, 2008
Digital Domain
Caution: Driver May Be Surfing the Web
By RANDALL STROSS

ANYTHING that keeps tykes pacified on long car trips, like video systems in rear seats, is a boon to automotive safety. Today, Chrysler is poised to offer in its 2009 models a new entertainment option for the children: Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity. The problem is that the entire car becomes a hotspot. The signals won’t be confined to the Nintendos in the rear seat; front-seat occupants will be able to stay online, too.

Bad idea. As drivers, we have done poorly resisting the temptation to move our eyes away from the road to check e-mail or send text messages with our cellphones. Now add laptops.

Tom Vanderbilt, the author of “Traffic,” a best-selling book about our driving habits, said last week: “We’ve already seen fatalities from people looking at their laptops while driving. It seems absolutely surprising that Chrysler would open the door for a full-blown distraction like Internet access.”

On Chrysler’s Web site, Keefe Leung, a manager in the company’s advanced connectivity technology group, explains the rationale for the service: “People are connected in their lives everywhere today. They’re connected at home, they’re connected at the office, they’re connected at Starbucks when they go for a cup of coffee.” But, he says, “the one place that they spend a lot of time that they’re not connected is in their vehicle, and we want to bring that to them.”

Clearly, for safety reasons, Mr. Leung cannot condone use of the service by drivers. When he is shown in the videos demonstrating the service, called UConnect, he always occupies a rear seat.

When I asked him last week about possible misuse of the service by drivers, he said that it was “tailored for kids in the back seat” and that the company would provide instructions to owners about its intended use.

Still, Chrysler is the company that came up with the “living room on wheels” concept for its minivans, and Mr. Leung can’t resist talking about the Internet-connected car as “another room, an extension of your home.” It isn’t, though. At my home, the living room is stationary. But on the road, my “room” may collide with yours.

In case you’re curious, the United States Transportation Department this month released the final totals for traffic accidents last year: 2.49 million people injured and 41,059 dead.

That’s just a single year’s tally. As Mr. Vanderbilt says in his book, many people have been willing to accept curtailed civil liberties as a response to terrorist threats, but many of the same people “have routinely resisted traffic measures designed to reduce the annual death toll,” like curbing cellphone use while driving.

The Transportation Department is pleased that the number of traffic deaths in 2007 was the lowest since 1994 and reflected a historic low in deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.

But when one talks with public health groups and insurance industry representatives, one doesn’t hear jubilation. The decline in the total number of deaths obscures a more complicated story. While we have made large gains curbing alcohol-impaired driving and instilling the habit of buckling up, we have wasted most of the gains by using cellphones while driving.

Two studies, one Canadian and reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, the other Australian and reported by the British Medical Association, examined cellphone records of people injured in automobile crashes. Both studies concluded that when drivers were talking on phones, they were four times as likely to get into serious crashes.

The studies show that laws mandating the use of hands-free phones are little help: the increased risk of injury is attributable to the cognitive impairment from the phone conversation, which distracts in ways that a conversation with a seatmate does not, and was just as high for those using hands-free sets as for those with hand-held ones. (Don’t look for a similar study for the United States: the carriers refuse to supply the necessary records, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in Arlington, Va.)

J. R. Peter Kissinger, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in Washington, calls “distracted driving” one of the leading threats to “all of us who drive or walk in this country.” Will drivers exercise good sense and not use their laptops while driving? He is not sanguine: he knows of few drivers who follow the example of a colleague, who locks her P.D.A. in the car trunk before setting out so she won’t be tempted to put it to use while driving.

A laptop will pose a similar problem, even if it remains on the lap of a front-seat passenger. Mr. Kissinger said: “I can picture two teenagers in the front and the passenger pulls up a YouTube video. I can’t imagine the driver saying, ‘I’m going to pull over and stop so I can safely watch what you’re laughing at.’”

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute, shares that concern. “Adding another electronic distraction,” he says, “is a formula for disaster.” Even if the entertainment devices are in the hands of a passenger, what will happen is perfectly predictable — “the driver will want to see,” he said.

Chrysler was not the first to endow laptops in the car with Internet connectivity; individual users have been doing on their own in any number of ways, such as by selecting laptop models with built-in cellular wireless access or by using PC cards supplied by their wireless carrier. An off-the-shelf mobile router and PC card could essentially duplicate the networking setup of UConnect Web and at a cost far less than the $495 plus installation fees that Chrysler will charge.

Which occupants in the car will most avidly use UConnect? Is it the children in the back with game consoles that provide plenty of self-contained entertainment without the Internet? Or is it the adults in the front seat, whose ability — never strong — to voluntarily remain unconnected is now disappearing?

Will we notice if our living room on wheels, fully loaded with every amenity, sails off the

road?

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail: stross@nytimes.com.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, August 30th, 2008 at 2:49 pm and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Etc., Risk, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

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U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from Amazon.co.uk.

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum
Toronto

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013
BoingBoing.com “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Communications.
Grand Rapids MI

 

 

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