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Insight: Driven to Distraction

The auto industry is tough for OEMs and suppliers alike, but recent studies have shown that it’s a jungle out there for end users, as well.

The auto industry is tough for OEMs and suppliers alike, but recent studies have shown that it’s a jungle out there for end users, as well. The issue of driver distraction has come under the microscope at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, several academic institutions, and other bodies. The news is not good for anyone out on the road. In a study published this spring, for example, researchers at NHTSA and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, it’s shown that data collected on drivers via cameras and sensors in 100 cars for approximately one year, there were a significant number of “gotcha” moments, where inattention and drowsiness contributed to accidents and near-misses.

What has prompted the interest in distraction is the growth of vehicle features and functionality, as well as the figurative explosion in portable electronic devices, e.g., cell phones, laptops, music players (all items with restrictions for use by airplane passengers, and they aren’t even the operators). Examples of potentially distracting features, beyond the primary culprit of mobile phones, include navigation systems, telematics devices, audio equipment, and climate controls.

There are a number of market dynamics that inevitably propel the propagation of new vehicle features. Automakers use them as a means of differentiation: think of BMW’s iDrive technology, which uses a console-mounted knob and display screen to control communication, entertainment, climate, and navigation systems. There is typically more profit in high-end vehicles, so any automaker can be expected to be calculating the benefits to the bottom line in making decisions about what equipment to add. Also, the emphasis on innovation by suppliers to strengthen their profitability creates another category of industry participants instigating new features to delight their OEM and vehicle-buying customers. The end result, in the opinion of some observers, is an embarrassment of riches.

As the attention paid to distraction is heightened, one is reminded of the observation attributed to Mark Twain, that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Whose problem is driver distraction, and what should be done? All eyes usually turn to NHTSA, but it regulates motor vehicle equipment, not individual driver behavior. The agency is involved in studies to better diagnose the nature of distraction, to create knowledge that allows makers of vehicles and equipment to minimize the risk. State legislatures have taken up the cause primarily in the case of mobile phone use. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have recently put laws on the books with various limitations or requirements associated with cell phone use, and other states have legislation in progress. These address the most apparent part of the driver distraction problem, at least.

What is the role of automakers? After all, they have little control over the outside equipment (e.g., aftermarket electronics, makeup cases) a consumer chooses to bring into the vehicle, and their participation in the “features race” could be considered part of the problem. But they are playing a voluntary role in the solution to driver distraction, as well, through basic research, applied technology, and continuous improvement in the human/machine interface. Two examples:

  • GM’s multi-phase project with Wayne State University and Henry Ford Hospital to use brain imaging while simulating driving activity, documenting the physiological side of driver distraction
  • GM’s introduction of head-up displays (an expertise that originated with its acquisition of Hughes Electronics) in selected vehicles, an example of the application of new technology to manage the increasing volume and complexity of information for the driver.

Suppliers could be even more removed from accountability for driver behavior, but they have been working closely with the automakers to make new features safe, ergonomic, and valuable to the consumer. Delphi, Visteon, Siemens VDO, Johnson Controls. . . there are many Tier Ones who are doing the heavy lifting in developing ways to accommodate greater functionality within the vehicle with a minimum of distracting influences.

We would argue that the industry players and government overseers are addressing the issue of driver distraction appropriately. This is particularly true if we can make a pitch for two low-cost solutions: personal responsibility and common sense. Distracted driving predates electronics and cell phones (but probably not lipstick). It can occur independently of any of these features, as evidenced by driver distraction studies that cite outside objects or events, dealing with children or other passengers, and food or beverages in the car as known hazards. It is likely that everyone, at least occasionally, performs a risky maneuver while driving, and the reason we do it is because we can usually get away with it. The most effective solution to the driver distraction problem would be a greater respect for the consequences, statistically rare though they may be. 

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