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Information systems can negatively affect driver safety

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I've become increasingly annoyed with today's in-car information systems.

Of the 50 I tried during the recent Canadian Car of the Year tests, at best 10 came close to being user-friendly and intuitive. It is funny to note that each information display features a warning that the driver should not operate the display screen while the vehicle is in motion. Given human nature, is that a realistic request? I suggest that at best, one driver in a thousand would comply. Fiddly touch screens, long menus and tiny buttons do nothing to aid safety.

It's not that I am averse to technology. I have a smartphone, tablet and a couple of laptops, and am able to talk to race engineers on almost any level. However, I have increasingly come to understand that technology has to be in the right place and application to be truly useful.

Here is a quote from a study titled: The effects of in-car information systems on mental workload: a driving simulator study (Authors, Fokie Cnossen, Karel Brookhuis, and Theo Meijman, Centre for Environmental and Traffic Psychology, Department of Experimental and Occupational Psychology, University of Groningen).

"In-car electronic information systems may provide drivers with information about congestion, route selection, or adverse road and weather conditions. Although such systems are designed to help the car driver, the extra information provided may increase driver workload to the extent that driving performance deteriorates. The presentation of information in the car may tempt drivers to focus on this information and consequently disregard events outside of the car. Alternatively, when drivers maintain attention focused on the road, the information presented by such systems may not be processed by the driver. For example, it is conceivable that drivers may miss information in complex traffic situations where workload is high."

If you skipped over that bit, here is a summary. Information systems may have a negative effect on driving safety.

In our advanced driving schools, we have noticed that new drivers in high-tech cars put too much faith in that technology. They reverse paying attention only to the rear-view cameras, make lane changes relying on the blind spot sensors, and so on. Skill levels are dropping at an alarming rate as more and more drivers follow this pattern. If autonomous cars become a reality, the idea is that the person behind the wheel will remain alert, ready to take over at a moment's notice. Again, with what we know of human nature, how likely is that?

The other day, California's traffic warning system was hacked, so the displays at one point alerted drivers of a gorilla on the road ahead. Good fun in a way, but it shows the vulnerability of computers.

All the safety and stability systems on modern automobiles are termed "driver aids". The implication is that they are there to help an alert driver perform better, not take over the basic task of paying attention. However, genetically we are a lazy species, as are other animals. Conservation of energy was part of survival. That trait, misapplied, makes it more likely that we will be unwitting victims of circumstances.

Alan Sidorov is an experienced automobile racer, product tester and freelance writer. You can reach him at www.spdt.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2013 F10

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