As a driver, you’re in control of over a tonne of metal and glass hurtling along at high speeds – a lethal weapon as a glance at the relevant statistics illustrates. In this post I want to ask – is stuffing cars full of potentially distracting – and manipulable – technology a dangerous move?
Concerns are abundant. For example, Samantha Murphy’s post talks about Ford’s updated SYNC system – this was designed as voice-control communications system with myriad applications. It would allow drivers to, for instance, activate their mobile phones (and dial numbers) by voice, as well as read out text messages to the driver; this would in theory allow greater focus on the road. In their own study, Ford deemed SYNC to have ‘significantly reduced the level of distraction’ faced by drivers.
It was indeed originally the use of mobile phones whilst driving which sparked this whole debate. Do innovations like SYNC, which aim to do away altogether with the manual operation of technology whilst driving, solve this dilemma? Perhaps not, as an old THINK! radio advert emphasized: “It’s hard to concentrate on two things at the same time. Think! Switch your mobile off!” So even with ‘hands on the wheel and eyes on the road’, talking on the phone carries a risk – it can cause ‘dangerous mental distractions’. Psychologically, it can require greater concentration than talking with someone physically present in the car. Speech is not the only distracting area of in-car technology; often, simply inputting or clarifying an instruction to the tech system can ‘create a level of cognitive demand which makes it harder to attend’.
SYNC’s latest incarnation has garnered further criticism for its extra features. Notably, it allows internet access, allowing (e.g.) drivers to access social media whilst on the road. Drivers will be able to, for instance, check Twitter and even retweet. Surely this is distracting? Isn’t giving drivers the option to check Facebook and Twitter every few minutes unnecessary and potentially dangerous? A specialist on distracted driving, David Strayer, believes so. “Going on Facebook or sending a Tweet is engaging in a complex conversation that should absolutely not be done while driving,” Strayer’s most recent research concludes that “despite public belief to the contrary, hands-free, voice-controlled automobile infotainment systems can distract drivers”. SYNC wasn’t even the most distracting tech system; Mercedes’ and Chevrolet’s equivalents both registered greater distraction ratings following a series of tests.
Built-in tech systems aren’t the only problem. Google Glass has sparked debate again after a US driver was reprimanded for driving whilst wearing the device – again, hands-free but with major risk of driver distraction. It demands your attention, diverting it from the road, and its pop-up notifications may cause sudden distractions. In the UK, The Department of Transport decided to intervene before the device was released, banning its use whilst driving. This is a good example of policy-making to prevent a problem before it begins; this isn’t a situation in which the user should be free to use the technology at their discretion – common sense (like switching off notifications) only goes so far. This kind of technology should be governed in the same stringent manner as mobile phone use.
Another area of concern with regards to in-car technology is the potential for ‘remote hijacking’. As cars become ‘smarter’, with fantastic technological accessories like automatic parking and braking (Ford will launch the latter next year), they also become more vulnerable to being hacked and controlled. Chris Valasek, an expert on vehicle security, explains that these technologies controlling steering and braking are highly amenable to manipulation. Computer scientists, in attempts to broadcast these concerns, have demonstrated frightening powers over cars, like slamming on their brakes and controlling their steering, all from their laptops. Watch Valasek in action here:
Valasek’s hacking involved physical access, but it has already been shown that remote hacking is possible. Part of the reason is that technologies described above, such as SYNC, operate through external wireless systems like bluetooth and WiFi, which hackers can use as portals into the car’s computer network without physical access. The problem is, says Valasek, that, disturbingly, manufacturers aren’t taking note; “security seems like an afterthought”. The consequences of malicious car-hacking could potentially affect any driver, pedestrian or cyclist, and so it is imperative that security is not an afterthought, but a central consideration.
Although this all may sound pessimistic, car technologies do have great potential to really improve safety as well as convenience. But a key point to make with regards to policy-making, is that it’s exactly these kinds of technology which I have discussed which must prove themselves to be safe according to the precautionary principle – the burden of proof of safety lies with the car and technology manufacturers. The hack-and-control issue of car technology more of an uncertainty, as there have been no actual cases yet (the above were under test conditions), – but in this case we must remember that “lack of evidence of harm is not the same thing as evidence of lack of harm”: the threat cannot be ignored.
In both arenas, therefore, it would be prudent to have regulations dictating, for instance, a minimum level of computer security, and standardized testing on possibly-distracting in-built technologies, to be conducted by the manufacturers. For distraction, so far there are only voluntary guidelines, ‘that encourage automobile manufacturers to limit the distraction risk’ (similarly, the organiser of the aforementioned distraction study ‘urges manufacturers…to reduce cognitive distraction’); and for hacking, Valasek wants to use ‘public pressure’ and ‘shame’ to compel manufacturers to step up security. But I think these are necessary additions to existing vehicle regulations. Who is deciding the limit to which these technologies can progress? Proper governance must be by law, rather than being left to the car and technology manufacturers themselves, to whom profit is an incentive to continually advance the technology, and – on the basis that these technologies are not ‘new’, so don’t require special testing or regulation (the ‘novelty trap’) – to potentially ignore its growing risks.