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Will connected cars cause more accidents?

Will connected cars cause more accidents?

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With a deluge of apps coming to the car, it's time to start taking distracted driving as seriously as drunk driving

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Chevrolet AppShop hands-on
Chevrolet AppShop hands-on

Morgan Webb, the gaming and tech personality, stood on a purple-lit stage between a Chevy Impala and a Corvette and raised her arms triumphantly. The candy-apple-red cars looked ordinary, if a little shinier than normal, but it was what was inside that mattered: LTE connectivity and an in-car app store. "Today, thanks to Chevrolet, you are finally looking at the connected car," she said.

Whether it’s in the form of car-friendly apps, smartphone integration, or coordination between your smart appliances at home, the internet is coming to your car. The largely latent time we spend in our cars is gold and automakers, carriers, Google, and Apple are all striking out for the new frontier.

In the most profitable scenario, your car would drive itself while you and your passengers spend the entire trip fiddling with apps and using precious wireless data. But since self-driving cars are still at least six years from hitting the road, companies must balance the desire to do more things with your car and the need to keep your focus on driving.

"Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing."

"Distraction occurs any time you take your eyes off the road, your hands off the wheel, and your mind off your primary task: driving safely," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing." NHTSA says that even using a phone or GPS unit hands-free with voice commands compromises a driver’s ability to avoid an accident.

Driving while texting is six times more dangerous than driving drunk, according to the NHTSA, and a driver who texts is twice as likely to crash. At the same time, more than 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a cell phone at any given moment during daylight hours, according to the NHTSA. While 98 percent of people say texting or emailing while driving is unsafe, 49 percent do it anyway, according to a survey by AT&T.

Part of the problem is that driving while using your smartphone lacks the social stigma associated with driving while inebriated. Prior to 1980, drunk driving was considered much more culturally acceptable and was rarely prosecuted in the jurisdictions that actually had laws against it. But thanks to a concerted public education campaign by groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), most people now know that friends don’t let friends drive drunk. By contrast, my mother recently emailed me a terrifying photo taken from behind her steering wheel with the following message: "I had a great trip but now I'm driving home in rain, fog, and traffic congestion. Bo-ring!! This is why God created texting while driving!!"

The public education effort is being spearheaded by AT&T, which organized the "It Can Wait" campaign that produced the harrowing 30-minute Werner Herzog-directed public service announcement that shows the victims of texting accidents and the distracted drivers who caused them. The other major three carriers, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have all jumped on board with the campaign, which also buys advertising and does workshops in high schools.

Driving while using your smartphone lacks the social stigma associated with driving while inebriated

Chevy’s AppShop is launching with 11 apps in 2014 including TuneIn, which pulls in online radio streams; Glympse, which shares your location in real-time; Vehicle Health, which lets you check your car’s vitals; and even Priceline. These all seem like things a driver would want, but they’re also tempting distractions.

Carriers and car makers realize this, which is why most of them try to head off the question about distracted driving before it gets asked. "If we cannot introduce a feature safely, then we will not introduce it at all. That is our absolute commitment," says Alan Batey, an executive vice president at Chevrolet. "We want our customers to get information quickly, but we want them to focus on driving and focus on the road."

That new focus has filtered down to user-interaction designers, who are now adapting apps like Priceline to make them minimally distracting for drivers. That means voice control, haptic feedback, oversized buttons, basic text, and opting for a series of yes-or-no questions to replace the longer, more complicated prompts used on phones.

The NHTSA has issued guidelines to minimize in-car distractions. A glance at the screen should take only two seconds and an entire task should take up to 12 seconds, for example, and certain actions should not be possible unless the car is parked.

Some carmakers have designed certain features so that they cannot be used while the car is moving; others have guidelines for how many seconds it should take to process what’s on a screen. But all this is still being debated.

The new focus has filtered down to user interaction designers

"People say video should only be in the car in the back seat," says Chris Penrose, senior vice president of emerging devices at AT&T. "I would argue that if you're sitting parked in your car waiting for your children to come out, it would be okay to watch video on the front screen of the car."

User interaction designers are working on gesture recognition that will allow drivers to control apps and information without even speaking. But the best way to maximize safety while increasing the number of things you can do with your car is through prediction, Penrose says. The car may detect that gas is low, for example, and ask if you want to navigate to the closest gas station — reducing what could be a multistep process to a simple yes or no. The logical outcome of this is cars that do all that by themselves.

"There’s a lot of discussion about autonomous vehicles," Penrose says. "Hopefully at some point we all get in the cars and they just drive and you can do whatever you want to do. But until we get to those stages, it’s about making the car smarter to minimize you having to do anything, and then when you do have to do something, making it really simple."

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