Entry 395: Don’t Read This While Driving

As I mentioned in my last post, my wife Barbara and I went car shopping recently, and it ChevroletMyLinkEquinox02.jpgwas clear that, for both of us, the single most important feature of any vehicle was the infotainment system. I am not exaggerating when I say that this outweighed anything else, including whether or not the car came with wheels.

If someone had offered us a free car that was unable to scare the hell out of me by ringing every time someone called my wife’s cell phone, we may have turned it down.

Does the GPS talk to us? Can you enter a destination while driving? Is it touchscreen or buttons? Why are the buttons so small? Does it get Sirius XM? Does it have Pandora? Can I make restaurant reservations? Will it read my email to me?

These were the types of questions we asked rather than: What’s the 0 to 60? How big is the engine? What’s the warranty? Are the seats leather or pleather? How many airbags does it have? What the hell does the ECON button do?

You see, these days, getting from Point A to Point B isn’t nearly as important as staying connected to Points C through Z. Every device in our lives has to multi-task: our phones are no good unless they can play music, and our cars are no good unless they can play music from our phones.

Of course, all this stuff is blamed for an increase in accidents. And that’s something a devicenavdy-002[1] called Navdy thinks it has solved.

Navdy is an HUD, which has nothing to do with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD in this case stands for “Heads Up Display,” like when you throw a football at someone who isn’t looking and yell “HEADS UP!” right before it hits him in the ear.

The Navdy sits on top of the dashboard and projects information onto a small screen that appears to be six feet in front of the driver but really isn’t, since that would require the driver to have extraordinarily long arms.

navdy-001[1]With the Navdy installed, you can get directions, have your email read to you, make calls, see who’s calling you, play music…in short, everything your infotainment unit does, all without taking your eyes off the road. It’s all there, right in front of you, between you and that nice old lady with the walker who’s crossing the street.

In a promotional video, a wise-cracking spokesperson is driving along, demonstrating all the things Navdy can do and how this heads up display reduces the danger of distracted driving, when he gets a call from his mother, signaled by his mother’s photograph popping up on the HUD display. I don’t know about you, but if my mother’s face suddenly appeared in front of me while I was driving, I would find it to be pretty damned distracting.

All in all, though, I guess it’s better to be looking in front of you than down at your infotainment center, or up at the billboard telling you not to drive while distracted.

But here’s the thing: unlike all our devices, we humans are lousy at multi-tasking.

Take the simple task of talking on our phones. What if I told you that all the hands-free laws on the books have done nothing to reduce accidents?

That’s because the distraction isn’t from holding the phone, it’s from talking on it. It’s the conversation that’s distracting, not the phone. In their excellent book, The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons cite many studies showing that we humans have limited cognitive resources which make it next to impossible to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Talking on a cell phone, hands-free or not, dramatically impairs visual perception and awareness. I’m guessing a “MOM’S CALLING” sign popping up in front of you isn’t going to help much, either.

The name of that book I mentioned, by the way, comes from a famous experiment in which The-invisible-gorilla[1]subjects are told to count the number of times a basketball is passed from player to player. While doing so, they are unable to notice a gorilla walking through the gym. (You can see video of this here, although it won’t work on you, becuase you’ll be looking for the gorilla.  However you may have trouble counting the basketball passes while you watch for the ape.)

It’s interesting to note that the very first distracted driving laws in America were introduced in the 1930’s, when your GPS was your spouse trying to handle one of those mural-sized folding maps while the window was open. You see, they didn’t want people using car phones back then, either, but they weren’t very practical anyway, since you’d arrive at your destination before you could input a phone number on the rotary dial.

1949%201950%20FORD%20RADIO[1]Kidding. Of course, those 1930’s laws were for car radios. And before that, people probably thought windshield wipers were distracting.

In short, it’s what we do while driving, not how we do it. So when there’s a heads up display in every car; when we can view a topographic GPS map on our windshields; when my mother can actually sit on top of my steering wheel via holographic projection; there won’t be any reduction in accidents.

If car companies sincerely want to make us safer, they’d stop giving us so much to do. I mean, is it absolutely necessary to the operation of a motor vehicle to display the album cover from the song currently playing? If you don’t want me to take my eyes off the road, why would you do that? What’s next–scrolling the lyrics so I can sing along?

Meanwhile, you know there’s a problem when the new car manual for the entertainment system is double the size of the manual for the car itself.

See you soon.

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