Computers

Apps dashboard invasion; innovations or more driver distractions?

Innovations, or more driver distractions?

CorrespondentJanuary 2, 2012 

This time of year I always look forward to what products will be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show, which will take place later this month in Las Vegas. One thing we can count on is that the LTE standard for high-speed wireless is going to proliferate. Verizon is placing a large bet on LTE smartphones as fast 4G networks take over the marketing buzz, but of course AT&T and Sprint are also in the mix. What we can now expect is to see LTE making its way into other wireless settings from video surveillance systems to the dashboard in your car.

The latter can be considered a mixed blessing, given the safety considerations when distractive technologies move into transportation systems. I see that BMW's suite of applications will now include the user-review site Yelp in its vehicles. Get used to the idea that apps will begin appearing more and more on the dashboard, helping you find restaurants and track down stores with the aid of convenient maps. But how much technology do we really want to put in the driver's line of sight? When it comes to high-tech in cars, consider me a holdout, convenience or not. I want no more electronics than I might find in a 1949 Packard to tempt my eye off the road.

It's clear that we have to solve the distracted driver problem, and fast. Cellphones and drivers don't mix, despite the assertions of frequent chatting drivers that their skills are above average, allowing them to multitask with impunity. I'm sure some people can manage high-tech while navigating city streets, but from a statistical perspective, I'd just as soon not be crossing the street when they're approaching, as I was the other night on my walk when a woman talking on her cellphone bounced her car off a curb after crossing into the other lane without noticing it. Fortunately, it was a small, residential street and I had heard her coming.

The great cellphone debate is just getting started. I see that the American Automobile Association says that one-third of U.S. drivers routinely use cellphones while driving, and the National Transportation Safety Board is urging states to ban the use of cellphones and portable electronics by drivers while the vehicle is in motion.

The big automakers will be OK with this as long as the laws don't extend to hands-free phoning. They've spent big money on systems to keep drivers connected, and must be pleased to hear Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood say, as he did recently, that he does not support a ban on hands-free cell calls.

Modern gadget use

Isn't it amazing where we've wound up? Ten years ago, all anyone could talk about was what kind of computer to buy. This holiday season, I heard almost no one talking about their PCs - it's as if desktop computers are simply a commodity. All the buzz is in hand-held, connected gadgets. A market analyst firm called the NPD group notes that the trend is cutting across more industries than automotive: NPD estimates that smartphones account for 27 percent of all photos taken in 2011, up from 17 percent the year before. As never before, using the gadget in your pocket or purse, or on your belt, is getting to be how we get and record our information.

Our gadget use is compulsive; we want our information, and we want it now. The danger is that we can be led around by our tools, and we're hitting the limits on what's socially and legally acceptable for using them. My guess is that restricting cellphones in cars is inevitable. It's a controversial idea, but we'll need to have this conversation again and again as mobile devices offer us options that can cross the line in terms of privacy, security and personal safety.

Paul A. Gilster is author of several technology books. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com

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