The first time I got into a car accident (if it even can be called that) was when I was 17: I backed our family's Prius into our parked Land Cruiser. It was in my blind spot! Ok, it was directly behind me. I’ll admit it: my somewhat fleeting attention span often thwarts my best efforts to be a good driver (STAY OFF THE ROADS IN LOS ANGELES). My driving skills have significantly improved in the eight years since that collision, but it's because I've worked hard to eliminate any unnecessary distractions in the car: I don't text and drive (I'll pull off the road if it's absolutely necessary for me to send a text) and my car has built-in Bluetooth, ensuring my eyes are always on the road.
Driving to work today, I was listening to the This American Life podcast -- which I highly recommend, by the way -- and one of the hosts read a brief "message from our sponsors" about the Ford Sync*. In a nutshell, the model strives to do exactly what I've tried in my own car: Ford has paired with Microsoft to morph "the car into a powerful smartphone, one that lets you carry your digital world along with you and then customize it." The 2011 system, called MyFord Touch, basically lets you have a conversation with your car. An article on Fast Company describes its capabilities:
"Instead of talking to the dashboard in a stilted series of menu commands, you just say, "I'm hungry," and out comes spoken restaurant advice, matched up with the nav system. If you're in the mood for Oscar Peterson, you don't have to say "music," then "playlists," then "artists"; you just utter the phrase "I'd like to hear some jazz." Up comes every piece of jazz music attached to the car, whether it's in your phone or on your iPod. If you have Sirius Satellite Radio in the car, you can say, "Find talk radio" to pull up your preferences."
By 2015, the company is planning to expand the Sync's system to incorporate web browsing and Facebook.
Ford's Sync has been a huge success due, in a large part, to the system: internal Ford surveys found that "one-third of owners with Sync-equipped vehicles said that the system played an important role in their purchase decision." GM appears to be hopping on the bandwagon as well by revamping their in-car communications system, OnStar: "[the upgraded system will] translate voice messages to text…Subscribers may be able to use voice commands to update the social media site Facebook."
It all sounds very cool and futuristic, yet I wonder: Do these car companies really want to enable me to use Facebook while driving? Ford’s chief exec., Alan Mulally, says their golden rule is "We won't do it unless it lets you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel," but what about having your mind on the road? The issues that arise from talking on the phone and driving, or texting and driving, are not all about the hands, for me at least.
More than once, I've been having a heated or hilarious conversation on my handsfree Bluetooth only to notice that I've completely checked out of my driving environment. Thankfully, I haven't gotten into a car accident as a result, but there have been some close calls (no pun intended…) And I know I’m not alone on this one: Just this month, one study found that "drivers talking on cell phones, either handheld or hands-free, are more likely to crash because they are distracted by the conversation." The co-author of the study, Frank Drews, said "driving while talking on a cell phone is as bad as or maybe worse than driving drunk, which is completely unacceptable and cannot be tolerated by society." Allowing drivers to not only talk on the phone, but surf the web, seems like a dangerous territory.
Finally, on a less important note, is there anything on Facebook so urgent that it can’t be addressed when you get home (apart from de-tagging an unflattering picture, of course)? Is it really necessary to be connected online AT ALL TIMES? Something about this reeks of those sneakers that Tweet every time you take a step. The difference is that while those sneakers are ridiculous and annoying, they’re not dangerous, whereas I really believe these new systems could be.
*advertising this way is really smart: your ad gets heard even if the radio show is downloaded as a podcast (and not listened to live), and I don't tune out the promotion when it's read by Ira Glass (as opposed to some anonymous advertising voice.)