Driven to Distraction
Driven to Distraction
Aug. 22, 2001 12:00 AM
We've all seen it - the driver in rush-hour traffic reading the paper, a parent turning toward the backseat looking after a young child, a driver and passenger engaged in a heated discussion and, of course, the people who talk animatedly on their cell phones, oblivious to the world. The consequences of such driver distraction are frequently catastrophic.
A recent study by the U.S.-based National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) placed cell-phone use fourth on the list of causes of motor vehicle accidents after drunk driving, aggressive driving, and speeding. And it's only going to get worse as more and more devices make their way into the car.
According to the international IT forecasting firm, IDC, as many as 70% of cell-phone calls are made from cars - frequently by businesspeople trying to take advantage of dead time as they move from home to office or job to job. As traffic gets worse, people will spend more and more time in their cars, and cars will effectively become offices on wheels. Clearly something must be done before governments step in and enact laws that will stifle innovation.
Governments worldwide have already started to get interested in legislating, generally at a national level. According to the Advocates for Cell Phone Safety, Israel, Japan, Portugal, and Singapore ban cell-phone use while driving. Another 17 countries have lesser restrictions, including requiring the use of handsfree units. In the U.S., at least 27 states are considering legislation of some kind to restrict or ban the use of cellular phones while driving, despite the fact that there seems to be no correlation between traffic fatalities and wireless subscriber growth. As of July 2001, five states - California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and, most notably, traffic-congested New York - have passed legislation restricting various aspects of cell-phone use in vehicles.
How Serious Is Driver Distraction?
While it's difficult to pin down whether there's a statistical correlation between cell-phone use and traffic accidents, it's prudent to take safety considerations into account when creating any new in-vehicle devices. People already use their laptops, cell phones, and PDAs as portable devices in their vehicles.
Forward-looking car companies, such as GM, have stated they believe the best way to deal with the safety challenge is for the automotive manufacturer to become engaged in the process of importing data into the vehicle platform. GM has announced plans to spend $10 million over the next three years on their SenseAble Driving public service ads, in addition to funding research into the study of driver distraction.
A number of organizations - from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to the Intelligent Transportation Society to the NHTSA to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association - have publicized the issue over the years, first for the cell phone, and now for telematics opportunities. There's a strong sense, at least in the U.S., that self-regulation will ensure the fastest and least encumbered path to market. Right or wrong, legislated or not, people are going to find a way to multitask while driving. As industry leaders we have a responsibility to assess and understand the hazards posed by any in-vehicle device we install or recommend for use - before it's offered to the general public. Remember, we'll be sharing the same road home.
The Telematics Opportunity
There are many participants in the telematics value chain from content suppliers to service, network, and user-interface providers. In the content, application, and service provider arena there are many players vying for dominance. Content providers such as MSNBC, CNN, and Yahoo! will succeed if they can embrace the constraints of the telematics market while extending their existing business models.
A new entrant into the mix is the telematics service provider (TSP) represented by vendors such as OnStar (a subsidiary of General Motors), Wingcast (a venture funded by Ford and Qualcomm), and TeleAid. These new players provide in-vehicle appliances that feature wireless connectivity and advanced user-interface technology, providing consumers with access to interactive content. In the long run, these telematics service providers will face pressure from both the carriers and the content suppliers. Will traditional carriers such as AT&T and Sprint eventually aggregate the content, applications, and services necessary to disintermediate the TSP? Or will consumers be more attracted to the Disney or AOL branded content-oriented service, accessible over their handheld information appliance, and purchase after-market kits to get these into their vehicles?
Technology to the Rescue?
There are many conflicting goals involved in the design of a telematics device. A device that can be carried out of the vehicle must be small and light yet provide excellent battery life. As a handheld information appliance, it needs a high-resolution screen for reading large amounts of text, as well as a means to enter text. An in-vehicle appliance, on the other hand, needs to be ruggedized to support the harsh environment of a car interior (temperature extremes range from -30C to 35C in the northern hemisphere), vibration, and other factors, while providing a user interface that can be operated with, at most, one hand to minimize driver distraction.
We can look to the transportation industry and see a number of different solutions to the problem. Many taxi fleets are now outfitted with purpose-built devices to provide driver/dispatcher communications, vehicle positioning information, and payment clearance. These devices, such as those by SiGEM and Nexus, are primarily output devices, requiring minimal driver input. Featuring simplified user interfaces, these systems are capable of being operated with a minimum amount of driver interaction, and can be used one-handed. Transport trucks, outfitted with mobile data terminals from vendors such as Aether and Qualcomm, enable drivers to communicate with their dispatchers, and even send general e-mail to their friends and family. These more sophisticated devices are designed to be used while the vehicle is stationary, as the friendly warning message shown in the photograph below makes clear.
Tethered devices from Symbol Technology are examples of how a telematics device can be taken out of the vehicle. The built-in base unit provides location-capture, vehicle interface, and wireless communications. The handheld unit, which sits in the cradle while the vehicle is in motion, can be removed and taken with the driver on service calls, or to the customer's door.
On the consumer front, a number of vendors are building tethered systems around WinCE-powered devices including HP's Jornada and Compaq's IPAQ. Microsoft's WinCE is also the foundation platform underlying the AutoPC. This system, typified by Clarion's AutoPC units, features a touch screen and a traditional hands-on user interface - albeit with more familiar car-stereo controls. MobileAria, a company funded by Palm and automotive electronics giant, Delphi, is betting on the Palm platform to enable wireless access to set up appointments, send and receive e-mail, and more. Even more so than the AutoPC, this user interface relies on direct manipulation and a graphical display, requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road, and therefore contributing to driver distraction.
Dealing with Distraction
Interface technologies aside, however, the real issue in reducing driver distraction is acknowledging that what drivers do with their mind is as important, if not more so, than what they do with their hands. It's the cognitive workload more than the physical or visual workload that causes drivers to be distracted. Irrespective of the interface technology, reducing task complexity at the application level is a necessity.
User-interface designers work to minimize the number of steps required for a driver to make a phone call, get directions, or even perform simple tasks such as changing a CD. The length of time it takes to look at a display, make a decision, then locate and use a control is calculated. Of course, the choice of interface technology is a key factor in calculating the time it takes to complete a task. Manually searching for nearby restaurants from an onboard computer screen that lists 100 of them is a task suitable for a driver only when the vehicle is stationary. However, a voice system reading aloud a list of the five closest ones can probably be performed safely while driving. As a general rule, the SAE has proposed that tasks, such as requesting a route, be locked out if it takes the driver more than 15 seconds to complete.
The global love affair with cars, telephones, and the Internet guarantees that convergence will occur. To ensure that such systems are safe, telematics designers need to be cognizant of the unique challenges faced in designing systems that are effectively used in short bursts. More than in almost any other environment, the user interface will determine the effectiveness of the system. Doing it right will provide a platform on which significant commerce can be conducted. Getting it wrong might result in prohibitive legislation that could hinder adoption. While the stakes are high, the rewards are huge. Ladies and gentlemen, both hands on the wheel. Start your engines!
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