Numlock Sunday: Russ Mitchell on the danger of infotainment
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Russ Mitchell, who wrote ‘We are killing people’: How technology has made your car ‘a candy store of distraction’ for The Los Angeles Times. Here's what I wrote about it:
Interactive infotainment systems in cars are potentially dangerous sources of distraction for drivers. While 98 percent of people polled say they’re concerned about distracted driving as a safety issue, 70 percent also said they themselves use their cellphones while driving, according to Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety. But one big distraction is the screen in the car itself; the NHTSA recommends that infotainment systems should distract a driver’s attention for no more than six seconds at a time, but those are just voluntary guidelines, and many actions tested by actual researchers take 12 seconds or more to carry out. There’s lots of money in those systems for manufacturers: In-car advertising, entertainment and consumer data will be a projected $11 billion business by 2030.
I loved this because distracted driving is so often understood just to be about phones, when in reality the distraction is increasingly built into the very vehicle itself. Mitchell’s piece connects decades of research to talk about what the issue here really is.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Russ, thank you so much for coming on. You wrote a fantastic story all about infotainment systems in vehicles and how while they may be increasingly desirable for motor companies and drivers, there are some really significant downsides to it. What first got you interested in this story?
I been covering the auto beat for several years now at the LA Times, looking at everything from electric cars to automated vehicles and including driver assistance systems, which are adding some distraction of their own. We also got interested in distracted driving and the ways that the infotainment systems are adding further distractions to the driver.
I think that distracted driving has been a somewhat known quantity for a while, but it's almost entirely been around cell phones. What I loved about your story is that it actually takes you inside the car to a piece of equipment that’s become standard and yet actually causes problems. How do they differ from a previous console?
The infotainment systems go back to Motorola, back in the 1920s; somebody that's better versed in auto history can correct me, but it was back around then that Motorola radios started going into car dashboards. You could consider that an infotainment system. Then, we had decades where you had radios, and then somebody might add a tape player or an eight-track player, but digital technology really made a lot of advancements in the car within the last 20 years, particularly the last 10.
We're getting safety systems, which are great, like backup cameras and blind spot detection, et cetera, but we're also seeing the infotainment, which basically covers the car's controls, the climate controls, the navigation systems, the radios, and then all kinds of apps; whatever apps you can get on your phone you can now get on the dashboard of your car.
You're right in saying that all the attention seems to be focused on people holding a cell phone in their hand, giving everybody from regulators to the average driver the false impression that the real problem is holding a cell phone. That is definitely a serious problem, but research has shown that the distraction happens with your hands and your eyes, but in addition to those distractions, your mind. When it has various tasks to accomplish, it is distracted, and you tend to focus on the wrong things when you should be spending 100 percent of your time driving.
You actually cited very early in the piece a very fascinating Pentagon study related to helicopter pilots. I thought it was so interesting how that related to drivers.
Yeah, there were several studies involved. It was part of the redesign of the Apache attack helicopter, which is the army helicopter that you might see in movies or perhaps in real life that leads troops into battle with missiles equipped.
These people driving the helicopters need to pay strict attention. They did studies as they redesigned that helicopter in the late '80s and early '90s. They found ways to re-instrument the cockpit and to make sure that the pilot was paying full attention. And that's where a guy named David Strayer, who does very intensive research on distracted driving now at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, cut his chops on such studies. He was part of this study that looked at how audio and visual information detracted from pilot attention in those cockpits.
And the results were used to come up with a better cockpit design.
Strayer's been busy since then. You wrote about some other studies that he's been working on. One that was a particular interest to me was that the NHTSA says that infotainment system should only distract the driver for no more than two seconds out of every six. But oftentimes the infotainment systems, according Strayer, can take your eyes off for much longer.
Yeah. I mean, it's good to have research to show that, but I think that you or me or anybody who drives a car knows that these systems, unless you have a really old car, that these systems grab your attention often for far more than a couple seconds if you're using them on the road. Because they're so essential to driving now, even if you try to avoid messing with the entertainment parts of it, the actual driver instructions and driver interfaces kind of require you to use them while you're driving.
I think that anybody can attest, the two-second limit is pretty low. That's a voluntary guideline too from the federal safety regulator and it doesn't have to be followed, and clearly, it's not being followed. It'd be hard to follow it and make drivers happy.
Part of the problem here is that drivers want this stuff. It's not it's being forced upon them. They love this stuff and as a result, the drivers, the customers, the auto industry and the regulators all have created a system where there are thousands of deaths on the highways and that seems to be the cost, and seems so far to be the acceptable cost, of having infotainment systems in our cars.
It seems peculiar because again, whenever they change a tactile button to a swipe or a click, it seems like it actually makes it a little bit more distracting to pull off.
Yeah. I mean, you can get too many buttons too. There're all kinds of new functions in the cars over the years, right? As we move toward automated cars, there's more technology going into the cars. We don't have automated cars for individuals yet, and so there's just lots more information to deal with.
There are studies that show there are better and worse ways to set up a dashboard with buttons and screens that are safer than others. But it's kind of an experiment. And the experiment is being conducted on the highways as automakers, some of them more serious than others, try to make them as safe as possible.
Has the NHTSA had any interest in kind of stepping into regulating entertainment systems?
If they're doing it, they're doing it in secret. They haven't publicly admitted to any such thing so far. Again, to get back to that handheld cell phone thing, all the laws have to do with texting while driving. The NHTSA site that pertains to distracted driving shows a hand holding a phone while somebody's driving a car. So the focus is on the cell phone. Nobody really seems to be taking the safety problems of infotainment systems very seriously.
You reached out to Apple during the story about their CarPlay system and they described it as a smarter, safer way to use an iPhone. But you remarked, and this is a really good point, there really hasn't been that detailed data actually showing that, has there?
I mean, they say it’s smarter and safer, but how do they know? I wanted to talk to them about how they know. What studies internally did they do inside to show that it was smarter and safer? Maybe it is, but they don't want to talk about it. So do they actually do this research? We don't know. If they did the research, what did it say about smarter and safer, and what criteria did they use? We don't know. Apple is one of the most closed companies out there. They're pretending that these systems are safe. People are being killed. They don't want to talk about it. The automakers don't want to talk about it.
You've written a lot lately about the intersection of technology and vehicles, particularly when it comes to the self-driving cars and some of the recent data disclosures when it came to that. It seems like this is a much more dynamic time on the road than a lot of times in recent memory when it comes to new technology being added in. I'm kind of taking away that this is increasingly a gamble and experiment?
Yeah, absolutely. And while we are moving forward, the introduction of automated vehicles that are widespread, whether we'll actually get there or not, is yet to be determined. The first commercial services are just starting in places like San Francisco, but in the meantime, and for decades to come, we're going to have human drivers on the road with more and more technology inside the car that purports to make the car safer.
Now, there are things that have improved to make cars safer if they work properly, like automatic emergency braking, although that doesn't always work properly. When it does, it's safer. You've got systems, as I mentioned, backup cameras that not only prevent you from hitting somebody behind your car, but help prevent you from bumping into other cars or posts or whatever. You've got blind spot detection so that if somebody's in your blind spot, you'll see a little light on your side mirror. Those are all great safety technologies.
At the same time, CarPlay is going into the cars. The automakers are providing their own apps and entertainment. And even when they all work seamlessly together, they're distracting. They don't always work seamlessly together. So people are driving down the street wondering why won't CarPlay play this Spotify list? Is there some kind of problem with the car? Is it from the car maker's system? Is it CarPlay? Is it the interaction between the two? Let's go down a few submenus and try to figure out why I can't play Rage Against the Machine on my car to enjoy the drive to work.
Again, it just seems like as much as we've added these incredible safety features that are the results of decades of technological work, at the same time they're just sprinkling in stuff that makes it harder to drive.
Russ, your beat's fantastic. I'm so fascinated by it. Where can readers find you and where can folks find your work?
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.