Resembling computers on wheels, many of the latest vehicles are loaded with sensors, lasers, cameras and crash warning systems that alert drivers to blind spots and impending collisions, or when they're drifting too far out of their lane. If the driver fails to respond, some models assume control and apply the brakes. Other options assist with the pesky chore of parallel parking or maintain a safe distance between vehicles. The aim of all the bells and whistles is, of course, safety. But how much is too much?
The federal government, the auto industry and the research community are debating the potential for driver distraction from too many chimes, beeps, computerized voices, vibrating steering wheels and lights flashing on dashboards, windshields or side mirrors. "If a 3-inch light on your dashboard illuminates because you're too close to the car in front, you may look down at the dashboard first," says Bryan Reimer, a research scientist who studies human-machine interface at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab.
Dick Myrick understands how easily a driver's attention can waver. As a participant in a mid-2009 MIT study on driver distraction, he drove an SUV on major interstate highways while wired to an EKG machine that monitored his heart rate. In an exercise designed to mimic distraction, he was asked to recall numbers in a sequence, then punch them into a keypad or say them aloud. "It was distracting and very stressful," says Myrick, 62, a retired engineer from Arlington, Mass. "My heart rate went up."
Auto manufacturers are grappling with how to make high-tech gadgetry more user-friendly. Recent consumer complaints about Ford's on-board computer system, MyFord Touch, led to a downgrading of the automaker by Consumer Reports and J.D. Powers & Associates. Ford is now addressing issues with the system that has two five-way switch pads on the steering wheel and multiple screen displays.
Lack of standardization in today's sophisticated technology also ramps up the potential for distraction, says Reimer. "Every manufacturer's system is different — and nobody gets any training before they get behind the wheel."
Through trial and error (and studying the manual) Halle Schliesmann finally mastered the voice-activated navigation, temperature controls and hands-free phone link in her month-old Honda Pilot SUV. "I press a button on the steering wheel and say, 'Cabin temperature 68 degrees' or, 'Call home,' " says Schliesmann, 49, a Phoenix kindergarten teacher. "The learning curve was steep, but now I love it."
Some critics say that, more than computers on wheels, vehicles are turning into smartphones on wheels, loaded with infotainment systems that keep occupants connected to their social networks (and attract younger, tech-savvy buyers).
Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have chastised automakers for designing cars that enable radios, cellphones, navigation systems and other devices to run smoothly in the car. "We feel very strongly that just because you can do something in a vehicle — like typing on a keypad while the car is in motion — should you do it while driving?" says David Strickland, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration administrator.
The automobile industry is pouring out new technologies, many borrowed from the military and the aeronautical industry, faster than researchers can evaluate them, says Anne McCartt, senior researcher for IIHS. "It's still a question mark what features really work," she says. "The best features are invisible — you don't even know they are there — like side air bags, adaptive cruise control and electronic stability control, which prevents the car from rolling over on a steep curve or icy road."
If you don't want all the bells and whistles, you can be safer with simple, affordable fixes, including panoramic rearview mirrors, turn signal amplifiers, pedal extenders, seat belt extenders, even a seat cushion.
And just over the horizon, experts say, are cars equipped with medical monitoring devices to check the driver's heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar. Even more promising are cars that use wireless communication to "talk" to each other and to roadside signals to prevent collisions. In fact, several major auto manufacturers are cooperating on developing such a "connected car."