Monday, January 18, 2010

The Controversy Over Technology on the Dashboard

I love my GPS and I know many other boomers who can't live without theirs. I've figured out how to put in the address I want to go to and how to turn it off when the voice gets too annoying. While my GPS system isn't accurate all of the time, it is usually reliable, and I do rely on it.

I also have a Bluetooth interface in my car that lets me dial my cell phone by saying "Call Randy's Phone" or by finding a contact in an imported phone book which appears on a screen on my dashboard. My car has trouble recognizing my voice commands sometimes, and then I turn to my imported phone book.  When I have to use the imported phone book, however, I pull over. I cannot select a name from many names while I am driving. It's just too distracting. Which brings me to the topic of this blog entry: the controversy over technology on the dashboard.

I've been reading all the news from both the Detroit Auto Show and the Consumer Electronics Show (which took place in early January) and especially the New York Times article that covered the pros and cons of putting more technology in a car's dashboard.

The debate seems to focus on the advantages of technology versus the danger of distracted driving. Another boomer, Fran Jones, put in her two cents on this matter on her blog Boomers and Beyond. Fran appears to be very much against this trend and for many good reasons! While she doesn't blame the makers of this equipment she says, "People, lacking the common sense to admit that hurtling around in a few tons of steel requires paying attention while you hurtle, are going to kill people with these new toys."

I was especially disturbed by the New York Times description of the Audi system, which lets you pull up a great deal of information as you drive. "Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there," the article says.  I see how trying to read all this info while en route could be devastatingly distracting.

As far as I can tell, boomer drivers are just as guilty as all other drivers who drive with distractions. I still have friends who think it is OK to talk on a hand-held cell phone while driving, fiddle endlessly with their radios or eat in the car. However, I  don't think that many boomers would particularly want to Tweet (post messages on Twitter) or text, for example, while driving, just because it's not part of their culture. Yet at least one dashboard manufacturer is working on a way to let people Tweet using their voices while driving.

Unlike Fran, I think that the makers of devices for the dashboard and the car companies have a responsibility to make the technology they put into cars safe for ALL drivers. Manufacturers should be looking at the interfaces between drivers and their gadgets and make them as simple as possible. Here is one area where the needs of boomers intersect with the needs of the rest of the generations. We all want our cool technology, and we want to be able to work with it without swerving off the road or hurting someone else.

Ford seems to be getting the idea right. They previewed the My Ford Touch Connected Car at the Consumer Electronics Show and their Ford Sync technology which uses a better than average voice command system, consistently gets good reviews from car enthusiasts and technology geeks.

Ford's own research (if you can trust it) says that voice activated commands are less distracting than touch commands. Unfortunately, according to Jared Newman in PC World, there will be three tiers for the interface, so some car buyers will still get inferior, and more distracting, technology.

Voice activation, however, doesn't address one of the problems for many of us boomers: how to remember all the commands we should use to make this technology work. Will the voice activated systems be flexible enough for our boomer memories? This remains to be seen.

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