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7 cool or disturbing things about high-tech cars

The latest, and greatest from the Connected Car Expo in LA

Published: November 20, 2013 04:45 PM

Experts from the auto, cell-phone, and other high-tech industries gathered in Los Angeles this week for the Connected Car Expo to discuss how to better integrate cars and smart phones, develop self-driving cars, reduce driver distraction, and other tech-driven topics.  Among the presentations and interactive sessions were a number of intriguing and sometimes eye-opening revelations about this convergence of transportation and infotainment.

Below are some of coolest, and sometimes disturbing, insights.

Pros and cons of voice control

Many experts see voice interfaces offering much promise in minimizing distracted driving by helping keep eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. And according to Bruce Mehler, a research scientist for the MIT AgeLab and the New England University Transportation Center, recent studies are shedding light on their effectiveness. Three highlights he offered from their research:

  • Voice-recognition “works much better than expected.” In a study of 90 people, there were only two for whom the system couldn’t recognize their commands.
  • When looking at cognitive demands placed on people through voice controls, they found that the workload is “much less than anticipated.” Voice controls, for example, require a lower workload demand than physically interfacing with a radio by pushing buttons, using dials, and so on.
  • While the aim is to keep drivers eyes on the road, voice systems still require a “much higher level of visual engagement” than expected, including the need for glances at a dash screen to confirm a desired function is taking place.

The rise of geo-targeted marketing

Opting in to your cell-phone carrier’s location tracking function will allow companies to push messages based on your location. While this may seem to be too much Big Brother to some people, others will likely enjoy being notified that the Starbucks at the next exit, or around the block, will give you a special discount on your next Caramel Brulée Latte.

Shopping from behind the wheel? More than you’d think

Pat Gardiner, President of Global Automotive for Nielsen, showed the results of a study that highlighted the top-10 websites that people access while their phones are connected to Bluetooth in the car. Among the biggies was Amazon, on which people spent more time on average than on sites such as Google, Facebook, and CNN.

What do people use most in navigation systems?

According to Niall Berkery, executive director, sales and business development for Telenav, the top two navigation functions are search and recent destinations. He also pointed out that many people find it difficult to enter an address into their systems. Berkery stresses that there needs to be a seamless transfer of information from the phone to the car. So if you, say, checked traffic or looked up a destination before driving, that same information would be available to you in the car’s display when you climb behind the wheel.

Using tracking to modify your driving behavior

Some insurance companies are providing premium discounts of up to 50 percent for drivers who opt in to a tracking service by plugging a device into the car’s diagnostic port under the dash. Kevin Link, senior vice president for Hughes Telematics, points out that this could potentially increase your driving safety and net you a larger discount by helping you modify how you drive. For example, since left turns are more dangerous than right turns, you might be able to change your commuting pattern to use more right turns. Or you could reduce late-night driving; it’s more dangerous to drive after 10 p.m., he says, because about 30 percent of drivers have some alcohol in their blood.

Who’s in control in a self-driving car?

Because early autonomous cars will need the driver to take over in some situations, a lot of experts are grappling with how to pass the control back and forth. Sven Beiker, executive director for Stanford University’s Center for Automotive Research, says that studies have shown that if you blindfold a driver in an autonomous car, once the blindfold is removed it takes five to six seconds for the person “to get the concept of what’s going on.” But for the first 60 seconds, you can see the difference in behavior between that person and someone who was driving all along. They are “somewhat compromised in the car,” he says. As a result, if an emergency should occur, such as a deer jumping into the road, the car would have to be able to handle that.

Risky behavior behind the wheel

The MIT AgeLab’s Bruce Mehler noted that, for drivers, “The whole concept of picking up a phone and working with it is very problematic.” He adds that, “The goal is to make you not want to pick up that device.” But in their studies, they found that frequent users of cell phones drove faster and more aggressively, changed lanes more often, and generally took more risks, even without a phone in the car. So, he notes that, aside from the phone, “they would still be doing other things in the car” while driving. Mehler says that we need to reinforce that the driver’s main responsibility is to be aware of their role in operating a vehicle and not take risks.

Best quote of the day:

“The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”--Credited to science fiction writer, William Gibson.

—Rik Paul


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