We rail against texting while driving. We don’t do it (right?) and we admonish our kids and friends not to do it. Texting and driving kills upwards of 3,300 people each year in the U.S. and injures 421,000 more, according to the federal government. No matter the persuasive statistics, people carry their social habits onto the road. The controversy around distracted driving isn’t limited to texting: Is it okay to talk on your cell phone while you drive? Does “hands free” make it less dangerous? Are GPS-enabled map apps like Waze substantively different – less distracting – than texting? Matt Wald, in a June 15, 2014 NY Times article, pointed out that “Getting directions on the road from Google Maps and other smartphone apps … are also a gray area when it comes to laws banning the use of cellphones or texting while driving.”
Shift gears to the growing discussion over autonomous driving. A WSJ piece in late May quoted a Google executive predicting that “in two years, self-driving cars would be operating on the street without the aid of human assistants for safety.” There is no shortage of controversy about taking drivers out of the loop in terms of convenience, economics, safety and liability. Some of the resolution will likely wait until the systems are further proven, as they are in airliners that can land themselves. Still, regardless of the technology, will the public trust autonomous cars from automobile companies that issue safety recalls for millions of cars (or fail to) on a seemingly weekly basis?
Maybe in-car apps and autonomous vehicles, despite the issues intrinsic to each, are two evolving technologies that need each other. The emerging reality seems to be that driver connectivity, whether part of a smartphone or integrated into cars’ electronics, is not going away, despite the weight of evidence about the dangers. And automation for how a car drives is evolving: today, putting on the brakes without driver intervention; tomorrow, getting you from point A to point B while you work on a presentation.
Is the answer to people’s inexorable appetite for staying fully connected while they drive − and car companies’ insistence on feeding that appetite – to accept and accelerate technological evolution? If we can’t get drivers to pay attention, should we embrace cars that do it for them? At the end of the day, should we focus on autonomous driving, rather than laws that are difficult or impossible to enforce, to mitigate the dangers of distracted driving?