Challenge to Designers: Keep Drivers Focused – Too Many Distractions, Technology Apps Too

By Eric A. Taub

Sept. 27, 2018, NY Times

The large rubber strip that I was speeding toward on the Ventura Freeway near. Los Angeles looked easy enough to avoid. I swerved, but not enough.

That strip was actually metal, however, and it ripped through my right front tire, which went spinning across four lanes of the freeway. Moments later, I was driving 80 miles an hour with one bare metal wheel, sparks flying. I pulled onto a median to await a tow truck, worried for our safety as cars screamed past.

I had been looking at my wife for about four seconds before glancing back at the road. Had I just become a victim of distracted driving? The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration would probably say yes.

Drivers should never take their eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, the agency says. The Auto Alliance, a manufacturers’ trade group, agrees. “The odds of a crash double if your eyes are off the road for more than two seconds,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman.

(Excerpt from NYTimes article)

Ray Myers

Daydreaming While Driving – Not a Technological Problem

The biggest distraction in your car might not be the smartphone in your hand. It could be the biochemical circuitry between your ears. On Wednesday I know I talked about the dangers of too many technological diversions that lead to distracted driving and its often deadly consequences. Your brain, however, may be one more thing that you have to keep in check or under control. The brain’s habit of drifting off into daydreams is still the biggest cause of distracted driving crashes, according to an insurance company’s recent analysis of federal traffic safety data.

Yet one of the best ways to keep the mind on task is to find it something else to do that offers some stimulation — but just not too much, said Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Simple word games can help, and tuning into a radio program or a podcast is better than nothing — but both are much less distracting than a telephone conversation, even with a hands-free device, he said. Some researchers say the phone itself — all that entertainment and connectedness in a single tool in one’s fist — is to blame. Others wonder whether the ubiquitous cellphone and the Web have even shaped the way we think, making a whole generation intolerant of boredom and ever in search of distraction.

Talking with someone on a phone is much more distracting to a driver than even talking to someone in the car. When conversing inside the vehicle, a passenger will generally vary the conversation’s level of intensity and engagement in sync with traffic conditions the driver faces. Carpools, anyone?

Ray Myers

Hands on the Wheel, Eyes on the Road

If you’re driving right now, it’s far more likely you are reading this on your phone than you would have been a year ago. Despite a harrowing surge in traffic fatalities, American drivers appear to be getting worse at avoiding Instagram, e-mail and other mobile-phone distractions while driving. More people are using their phones at the wheel, and for longer periods of time, according to a study published Tuesday from Zendrive, a San Francisco-based startup that tracks phone use for auto insurers and ride-hailing fleets.

“As you have more young drivers on the road, and as people increasingly become addicted to their smartphones, it will continue being a major health issue—almost an epidemic—in this country,” said Zendrive founder Jonathan Matus. From December through February, Zendrive technology monitored 4.5 million drivers who traveled 7.1 billion miles, comparing the results with the year-earlier period. Roughly two out of three of those people used a mobile phone at least once.”

One of the few bright spots of the study is that drivers tend to use their phone as they first start out on a trip, perhaps ending a message thread before settling in for the journey. While that window of time isn’t any safer than any other moment behind the wheel, Matus believes it may present an opportunity for changing behavior. A publicity campaign urging drivers to finish screen work, or just catch up on Instagram, before setting out could produce results. “Legislation, by itself, is clearly not enough,” he explained.

Ray Myers

Social Media as an Addiction

I am not really talking about “so-called” President Trump here, but his use of Twitter seems to come close to this type of diagnosis.  Many prominent social psychologists are studying this digital phenomenon.  I’ll let them decide what advice is best for the current resident of the White House.  Adam Alter, author of “The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked” warns that many of us – youngsters, teenagers, adults – are addicted to modern digital products.  

“The technology is designed to hook us that way.  Email is bottomless.  Social media platforms are endless.  Twitter?  The feed never really ends.  You could sit there 24 hours a day and  you’ll never get to the end.  And so you come back for more and more . . . There should be times of the day where it looks like the 1950s or where you are sitting in a room and you can’t tell what era you are in.  You shouldn’t always be looking at screens.”  And now so many devices are portable that you literally have to put them out of reach if you want some “down time.”

It’s even getting harder now to walk down the street without having to avoid someone with a digital device in hand.  It’s even more dangerous on the highways where your fellow drivers’ eyes are focused on their digital screens and not the road!

Ray Myers

Make Car-Driving Fun Again!

Well, the assumption here is that the more technology we pack into our cars, the more fun we will have behind the wheel.  I am just not sure if this will happen.  Then again, I am not so sure Donald Trump will make America great again.  I like driving my car the old-fashioned way with the radio as the only “auditory aid” I have.  I guess some people consider that a distraction, but it does enable me to practice my vocal skills when no one else may be listening, except when my wife and/or other family members, friends are in the car.

I first heard about this expanding business venture when I read a news article about Pearl, a new Silicon Valley auto-accessory start-up staffed predominantly by former Apple employees.  Most of them wanted a different work environment where they could contribute to making the car America’s second home with nearly all the technological conveniences you may want.  I am not exactly sure if this was the primary motivation,  but it seems that most of the former Apple employees were also looking for a more collegial week environment.  Managers brief employees on coming products, company finances, technical problems, even the presentations made to the board.  What would Henry Ford say, or maybe this is what he had in mind all along.  In any case, the Pearl employees, making auto acessories seem to be enjoying their new “mission” that frees them from the secrecy and paranoia of the Apple days.

I am just wondering about how many accessories you really need on a car.  But maybe it is just a simple fact that we are spending so much more time in our cars that we need all these other conveniences to keep us alert?  I am still trying to master the backup camera.  I just find it hard to look at the dashboard to see what is behind me.

Ray Myers

Multi-Tasking Behind the Wheel

Or as Deborah Hersman put it: “It’s the cognitive workload on your brain that’s the problem.” Hersman, president of the nonprofit National Safety Council and a former chairwoman of the federal National Transportation Safety Board, said it was not clear how much those various technologies (hands-free) reduced distraction — or, instead, encouraged people to use even more functions on their phones while driving.  And freeing the drivers’ hands does not necessarily clear their heads.”

After steady declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities last year recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. In the first six months of 2016, highway deaths jumped 10.4 percent, to 17,775, from the comparable period of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This cognitive workload “overload” is not a safe way to drive.   I have trouble listening to the radio and not being distracted when I’m behind the wheel.  And, of course, with my wife in the car, I also have a reliable “co-pilot.”

Please drive safely over this holiday weekend.  It may even be a good time to turn off your “cruise-control?”

Ray Myers

Driverless Cars and Safer Streers

Maybe this is really the answer: just take the steering well away from the human driver and our roads will be safer.  Now you will be free to text your heart away on any mobile device and not worry about your safety or the safety of others in their cars or walking the streets – you won’t be driving the car!  Google has formed a coalition with Ford in trying to make this all technologically and legally possible.  Volvo has also joined this group as well as ride-sharing firms Lyft and Uber.  They call themselves th Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.  But I am not quite sure how Lyft and Uber fit into this self-driving initiative.  Do they just send out driverless cars when you call them for a ride?

I still think I will miss seeing a “flesh and blood” person sitting behind the steering wheel when I ask Uber to send a car to help me get somewhere.  But maybe I am overreacting.  You’ve got to trust the technology after all.  Right!  Experts have already testified before the U.S. Congress stating that ninety percent of vehicle accidents every year (32,625 deaths in 2014) were the result of decisions made by drivers at the wheel – and self-driving technology has the potential to prevent “at least” some of those accidents. 

So I am grateful that self-driving cars can be instrumental in reducing the number of fatalities on American roads.  But I guess I still have to keep an eye open for those with human beings behind the wheels!

Ray Myers

Achtung!  Defeat Device Software in Your VW

Now I know I wrote about too much tech in your car on Friday and how that is becoming an aggravation for many new car buyers, but today I am writing about some software that might help car owners pass those bothersome emission inspections in countries around the globe.  Thus the term “defeat device” for this handy mechanism that will reduce your anxiety whenever  your car might be subjected to some form of tailpipe exhaust testing.  Unfortunately, having  this software in your car may cause you more headaches than when you simply failed car inspection in the past.  It might be more analogous to having passed an examination in school and then being caught for cheating.

What to do?   I am not sure anybody really knows what the resolution of this corporate deception will be.  I can remember a much simpler time when I drove a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle with the engine in the rear, and a sunroof on the top.  A real deluxe model for the time with an AM radio, and turn signals that flashed in whatever direction you wanted to go (earlier 60s models had semaphores that would warn other motorists and pedestrians of which direction you would be turning, Google if you like).

And I think we were not so worried about car emissions back then.  Gas was ridiculously cheap (I’ll let you Google that too).  I may be getting a little nostalgic here, but I am not really interested in going back in time.  It was fun while it lasted, but I think saving Mother Earth is a priority now, over half a century later.

Ray Myers

Driverless Cars Need to be More Human (Aggressive?)

These cars are just too polite.  Engineered for driving safely on America’s highways and bi-ways in the twenty-first century, Google has clearly produced one of the safest vehicles on the road today.  Since 2009 these cars have been involved in only sixteen crashes and, in each case, a human driver has been at fault (company data).  At the same time, the Google car has been pulled over once by the police for driving too slowly!

In the final analysis these driverless automobiles really do obey the “rules of the road” when their human-driven counterparts apparently always do not.  Take the four-way stop scenario: the Google car always seems to politely wait for its turn.  Not unsurprisingly in the human-driver world, this rule does not always seem to apply.  He who hesitates may be lost as the saying goes, but if you are in New Jersey you always have jughandles at stop lights (you may have to do some research on this, sorry).

So it seems that the lesson to be learned for the new driverless cars is tha they have to be aggressive in the right amount.  And that right amount depends on the culture, and there are lot of road ways between Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Ray Myers

Heads-up in Your Car

Keep your eyes on the road and keep your heads up.  In a very short time it looks like you will still have to keep your eyes on the road and on your Heads-up at the same time.  You will soon feel like a jet pilot except you will be driving your car on terra firma.  And instead of seeing puffy white clouds as you glide through the open skies, you will be looking at cars and trucks competing with you for open space on busy highways. 

Now will this all help us improve our driving skills?  I guess the answer is that it should, but I remember failing my first driver’s license test because I could not parallel park.  My excuse at that time was that I was driving a stick shift in the family Ford.  Well I still can’t parallel park very well (maybe not at all when my wife is in the car), but I am sure that my next car will probably help me do that thanks to improved spatial technologies.

I better start learning to use all these improved driving technologies soon before I become a relic of the automotive past.  Just another “heads up” for everyone: Jaguar is working on a “360 Virtual Urban Windscreen.”  While you are driving it will highlight pedestrians, show points of interest and display a “ghost car” that drivers could follow for directions.  I only hope I can keep my eyes on the road, and still sing along with the radio at the same time.  Whew!

Ray Myers

Tech to Reduce Car Collisions

There are a lot of features on a new car I bought last year that I have yet to use or know how to use? Perhaps my problem is that I do not buy a new car that often. The one before this was in 2001. It does seem that a lot of people do like all the new features and get many of them, e.g., in-car WiFi, back-up cameras, heated steering wheels and seats, etc. Seems like car safety, however, is not one of them.

Unfortunately, most car manufactures do not include life-saving features in the vehicle’s base price. For example, automatic emergency brakes will probably increase a car’s price by about $3,500. Having such crash prevention technology in American cars could reduce rear-end collisions, which account for about half of two-car accidents that kill 1,700 people a year. In a recent poll about a third of prospective car buyers said they would rather wait until the crash prevention technology becomes standard, rather than pay for it as part of a “tech package.”

So it seems that it’s all about the sales “packaging,” and not driver and passenger safety. Another case of “you get what you pay for,” but why should car safety be one of those things?

Ray Myers