Report From The Road
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written by Josh:
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The Importance of Being Stupid
So I woke up this morning

            I need help. I need a support group. Iím a chronic. Someone help me please before I hurt myself or someone around me! Please!

            Hi. My name is Josh and Iím a distracted driver.

Deep breath.

There. Itís out in the open. I feel better.

                        No one likes to admit that they have a flaw Ė especially when it comes to driving. Americans especially have trouble admitting when they have a problem behind the wheel. I have a family member thatís made ninety and is still behind the wheel. Many a failed attempt has been made to pull him off the road. ďI can see and I can hear and my coordination is fine!Ē Was the rebuttal. But old age and deteriorating motor skills are hardly the worst symptoms drivers on the road are experiencing.

                        In a survey done by Ron Cruger last week, we read about how many drivers on the road are trying to multitask. At home, in the office, fine. But not on the road.  

            Personally during my own time on the road, cell phones and food are the two main distractions that I see (there are the drivers who Iíve seen trying to balance a laptop on their laps while driving but those are more sporadic cases). They are also the two that I will admit distract me the most. You know how it is Ė sometimes I donít have time to eat before I head out, so Iíll swing by and pick up something from McDonalds. If Iím feeling healthier Iíll just grab a granola bar from the house as I leave. Whichever choice, though, it still means that Iím eating in the car, one hand off the wheel holding the food. Itís inevitable. Thereís just not enough time. Weíre on our way from somewhere or to somewhere and thereís just not enough time to run home, prepare something, then sit down and eat it. This is, of course, the idea on which McDonalds, Burger King, and the other fast food joints with drive-throughís have built their success.

Now, of course while Iím eating, my cell phone jingles and, with my mediocre ability to restrain myself from checking to see whatís demanding my attention, I pick it up to glance at an email or a text or reject a call. Also, Iím kind of a gramophone, so not wanting to pick up my phone with the same greasy hand thatís holding the burger or the French fry; Iím forced to use the other to touch the cell phone. Keep in mind that this is all while the car is still in motion. How about putting my hands on the steering wheel? Sorry, canít.

            But itís not just cell phones and food (just for the record, Iíve only done that once or twice Ė or ten times). In the last five years technology has made leaps and bounds. Computers, cell phones, and the Internet have fueled this necessity that we have for the constant flow of information. Thatís no longer limited to the computer on our desk. Itís in our hands, running on our cell phones, itís in our houses coming through our televisions, and more recently itís started to creep into our cars. Remember when the cool new in the car was automatic windows? Well, that may as well have been in the days when our years were followed by the letters ďB.C.Ē Nowadays the latest and greatest include in dash navigation, satellite radio, Internet connected head units that are able to spit out sports scores, weather information, Facebook and Twitter updates, and more. Now thatís great and all, but this is all coming at you when youíre behind the wheel. Some states have banned cell phones, Hawaii included, because theyíre a distraction to the driver. Texting and driving, talking and driving, and so on have been proven to lead to accidents. Taking your eyes off the road for five seconds to respond to a text can get you killed.

                        But what about these cars that have these fancy in-dash infotainment systems? From what Iíve seen of them in car advertisements and the news stories that feature them, they seem to be just as distracting if not more than a cell phone.

Over the past few months Iíve been talking to a few friends who work for auto dealerships in town, often eager to share news about all the latest and greatest toys to roll into the showrooms. Itís spring so all the 2012 models are beginning to appear on the market (go figure, weíre not even halfway through 2011). That means bold redesigns and as with every update, overload on the tech.

Youíd be surprised, being the tech hound I am, that I havenít yet gotten behind the wheel of one of these techíd up cars to check it out. It surprises me too and after having an especially interesting conversation (which may as well have been a rehearsal of his sales pitch) with a friend, I decided that I wasnít going to just sit idly by and listen when I could be out on the open road in one of these bad boys.

For the purpose of unbiased reporting Ė and because I donít want you to feel as if Iím wasting your time with a sales pitch Ė I wonít name the make and model of the car nor where I test drove it. The point of it, after all, is not which car has which features or which are better, but what itís like to have them in your car Ė and whether or not itís more distracting than a cell phone.

I start the day off by heading out over to a local dealership. As I pull into the parking lot, I feel as if Iíve just walked out onto the runway of a fashion show in a burlap sack. I park my car and bound on into the showroom. The smell of new car hits me and immediately Iím excited. I love that smell of soft leather and rubber just waiting to be burned on the road.

            A salesman is quick to race up, like a puppy waiting for you to throw a ball (in this case itíll be your life savings). I tell him Iím looking to test drive a car that has their latest technology onboard. I want the whole package. In-dash navigation, surround sound, live weather, cell phone connectivity; everything theyíve got. He thinks about it for a few seconds and, with a grin spreading from ear to ear, shows me to the car on a revolving pedestal in the center of the showroom. Itís a 2012 model thatís just come in. The fluorescent lights shines down onto the shining new paint. Itís a beautiful crimson. As we circle the vehicle, the light cascades off the sharp angles and subtle curves of the body. The headlights are like two of the biggest diamonds you ever did see. I ask him if he has a model outside that I can test drive. Just so he doesnít get too excited, I let him in on my dirty little secret that Iím only here to look, not to buy.

            He runs to a computer and types in a bit of information on the vehicle. Sure enough, thereís a few of them just waiting to roll off the lot. He hands me the key as we step out into the parking lot. The term ďkeyĒ no longer refers to that jagged metal stick that you insert into a hole and turn. This ďkeyĒ is a finely crafted plastic fob that fits nicely in the palm of your hand and slips easily into a pocket.

            He points to a midnight blue SUV sitting at the other end of the lot. This one, he says, has the full tech package onboard. Weíll talk in a second about what that entails. When weíre about ten yards away from it, he tells me to hit the top button on the fob twice. The carís turn signals flash and the headlights glow in that cool bluish/purple hue that some of the newer higher end carsí headlights have (thatís a combination of halogen and xenon, as opposed to the standard high beams that give off a slightly yellow beam).

            We get into the car and the first thing he tells me to do is to start the engine. I, like an idiot who crawled out of the stone age, held the fob in my hand and looked for a hole in which I would stick the non-existent key. Obviously used to people trying to start the car the old fashioned way, he chuckles and guides my eyes to a nice round button labeled ďPOWERĒ. Ah. I see. Itís like youíre starting up a computer.

            I push the button and the car comes to life. The gauges in front of me click on Ė white numbers with nice contrast against a dark blue gradient. The needle glows red as if daring me to get it to traverse the dial. Numbers start to flash at me on a small display between the two gauges. Thereís a bunch of information coming at me. Fuel economy; tire pressure, exterior and interior temperature, etc.

            To my right is the dashboard. A narrow chrome bezel frames it nicely. Dominating its front, just below the air conditioning vents, is a large touch screen. Itís about seven inches diagonally. Imagine having something like an iPad mounted in your dashboard.

            The emblem flashes up. ďLoading.Ē It says.

            The next screen it presents me with asks me to set up information. Do I want to set up the push information system? Do I want to program the satellite radio? Do I want to set up my navigation? Do I want the car to communicate with my phone via Bluetooth? Do I want to link my Facebook and Twitter accounts? Do I have A2DP streaming capabilities on my phone?

            I looked at all the information that was flying up on screen.

            ďDo I have to do this before I can drive the car?Ē I asked the salesman.

            He laughed and shook his head. With a few button presses he bypassed the setup menus and got us right to the main screen. If I were buying it, I would have to set it all up.

            ďDo you have a smartphone?Ē He asks. I nod and pull out my iPhone.

            ďSince operation of your phone while driving is illegal, let me show you what weíre going to do.Ē He says with a grin on his face.

            I hand him my phone and he quickly taps his way through the settings, activating the Bluetooth link and quickly registering it with the car. Soon everything from my music collection to contact list is available for me to view, select, and control on the touch screen.

Thatís my next problem.

I enjoy using my iPhoneís touch screen. Anyone with an iPad knows how easy it is to navigate. Tap what you want and youíre on your way. Itís quick, itís intuitive, and itís simple. So why is having a touch screen a problem?

Well, this vehicle is not like an iPhone. The touch screen, while not bad, is nowhere near the level of the iPhone. As Iím sitting there trying to figure out how to change the radio station, Iím tapping on the screen with as much accuracy as I can, and still itís selecting the wrong menus and the wrong options and Iím getting lost within submenus, unsure of what to do to get out of them. Of course, while all that is going on, itís still inaccurately registering my presses. Thatís bad for a number of reasons. Firstly, the menu architecture isnít intuitive. Things arenít where you would expect them to be Ė you have to hunt for them. Secondly, the touch inputís inaccuracy means that you have to constantly be watching where you press. Thirdly, this system is primarily meant for use while driving. Sitting there, I couldnít possibly imagine myself flying down the interstate at sixty-five and trying to use this thing at the same time.

I give up trying to figure out the system and let my salesman figure it out. Finally, after he gets us back to the main screen (it took him a while too), we can pull out. As I depress the emergency brake and shift into drive, an automated voice fills the cabin, ďEnter destination for navigation.Ē

ďCan I learn it in an afternoon or could I sooner graduate from college?Ē I ask.

He fidgets before answering me with what was probably a polished, standardized answer taken right from a commercial for the car. ďThe system was designed with the driver in mind. Itís intuitive and gives you every tool you could want while commuting from point A to point B.Ē

I took that to mean that I would probably be married and have kids before I learned how to master this system. I should also mention that from the quick glimpse I got of it, the carís manual looked thicker than a New York City phonebook.

ďEnter destination for navigation.Ē The female voice nagged at me again.

ďKeep driving.Ē The salesman said, ďIíll handle this part.Ē

ďAirport. Departures terminal.Ē He said to the dashboard.

A symphonic ping registered his command.

ďHonolulu International Airport, Departures terminal, destination.Ē The female voice recited, ďDestination is two miles away south, southwest. Estimated travel time is twenty minutes. Estimated time of arrival: ten forty five, A.M.Ē

He nodded, satisfied.

I kept my eyes on the road. Fine, but he did that. If this were my car, Iíd have to be doing that while driving. 

ďOkay,Ē he says as we approach the next suggested turn onscreen, ďThe system is going to tell you to merge right here but itís quicker if we just go straight.Ē

I nod and stay in the lane, following traffic.

ďRerouting.Ē The system announces.

            The airport is relatively empty and so he instructs me to pull up to the curb and put the car in park.

ďWhat do you think so far?Ē He asks.

ďItís not bad.Ē I reply. I have my reservations about the touch screen and the constant voice guidance which, after a while, got to be quite irritating. We talk a little bit more about all the different safety features and the other stuff you talk about before buying a car, and soon are on our way back to the dealership. I part ways with the car, pulling it back into the space. Iím assisted as I do so by two rear-mounted cameras sending video to the screen. I can see the cars next to me and the wall behind me. A set of red lines and yellow lines guide me into the space.

As I step out of the car, I hand the keys to the salesman and thank him for his time.

And now for the most important judgment. The whole point of the test drive was to see how using an in-dash infotainment system stacks up in terms of distraction to using a cell phone on the road. So how did it do? By no means do I advocate using a cell phone. Firstly, itís against the law while driving in many places and secondly it is one of the biggest distractions on the road. However, I found that the in-dash system was even worse. Hereís the thing that set them apart. You can turn off your cell phone and throw it in the trunk if you really want to force yourself not to look at it. With the car system, however, youíre kind of stuck with using it. Granted, youíll get used to it after youíve mastered itís learning curve, but even then youíre still looking down, taking your eyes off the road, to manipulate it.

All in all, it wasnít a bad experience. I donít think Iíd spend the money that it takes (and boy does it take some) to fix my car up with the cutting edge. Itís nice but it needs refinement. Weíre probably at least three years away from a point when these systems will be as intuitive and easy to use as an iPhone. Iíll just leave you with this closing statement: I think there were more controls and buttons and dials and switches in that cabin than in the cockpit of a 747.

Waking Up From A Bad Dream
Josh Lee
The Spectator
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