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In Car Apps: The next information overload

Thursday, April 3, 2014, 12:49 PM

Driving in your car, there’s an app for it. Automakers are clamouring to bring smartphone technology right to your dashboard. The days of buttons, dials, and analogue gauges are being replaced by touch screens and in-car apps. This poses a conundrum as drivers are faced with the next big information overload while trying to obey distracted driving laws.

Automakers have already been experimenting with integrated touch panels into vehicle dashboards. Ford has their MyFord Touch, while Tesla has been using a tablet style display in their line of EVs. Apple is now developing their own system called CarPlay, which integrates your phone and car. Rival Google, of course, isn’t far behind.

These in dash app systems provide a lot of benefits to drivers, especially once cars become more internet connected. Think navigation with live traffic that never goes out of date, streaming music and podcasts, and pretty much anything else you already use your smartphone for. It’s right there in front of you at all times.

Like any new technology, there are some pretty big downsides. Despite the dangers, people still have a hard time leaving their phones alone while they drive. Studies have shown that a distracted driver is four times more likely to be involved in a collision. Governments have already moved to ban handheld devices, but the laws may not be clear enough for these new in-car systems.

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Ontario’s distracted driving laws date back to 2009. This was before tablets were invented, and long before anybody got the idea to stick them into your car’s dash. The current law prohibits drivers from viewing screens unrelated to the driving task. It also bans manipulating these devices.

It may seem obvious. Just don’t use these devices at all, but what happens when your vehicle is one giant touch screen?

Touch controls require additional attention to manipulate even basic vehicle functions these days. In the past, you didn’t need to think twice about turning the dial to crank your tunes. You knew where things were. Now you need to look and tap. That’s more time with your eyes off the road, and increased chances of having an accident. It also still falls under distracted driving in the eyes of the law. You could get fined for just trying to turn on the defroster in the coming generation of cars. It’s up to the discretion of police, but most importantly, you could be putting your life and the life of others around in danger if you’re not focusing on the road.

The next big technical challenge will be how to make these devices safe and compliant with the law. Right now, the two options are steering wheel mounted buttons, and voice control. Unfortunately, some people will insist on using vehicle touch screens in an unsafe manner. In car apps are the future, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

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