Drive along any busy freeway and it's easy to spot - even from a distance - the drivers using cell phones: They're the ones who can't maintain consistent speed, change lanes jerkily, or brake tardily when the unexpected occurs.
And that kind of "distracted" driving comes just from using the phone. Common sense says there will be chaos when the roads are full of drivers receiving or dictating e-mail and fiddling with all manner of new "infotainment" devices.
As evidenced by the provocative presentations in the "Distractions: Minimum; Attractions: Maximum" technical session Wednesday at Convergence 2000, automobile and electronics makers are far from ambivalent - or unknowledgeable - about the potential ramifications of the phenomenon generally referred to as "driver distraction." Experts from both automotive and electronics industries are taking steps not only to create devices that minimize the effect, but also to better understand what (and how much) drivers can handle while at the wheel.
It's not entirely epiphany, then, that researchers assert most drivers can't handle much.
Barry H. Kantowitz, director of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, has studied driver distraction since before the advent of cell phones and long before anyone could imagine the high-tech infotainment devices now being proposed for the automotive industry. And, in short, Mr. Kantowitz doesn't think most drivers are ready for the deluge of potential infotainment information.
He sees too much danger even in using a cell phone while driving (he refuses to use one himself) and thinks that the advent of voice-activated equipment is no solution.
"The notion of hands-free (devices) solving our problems is patently false," Mr. Kantowitz asserts, saying that aubible inputs may reduce distraction but won't reduce the amount of concentration required in the process of thinking about and acting on information.
But he admits that market forces inevitably will dictate the use of infotainment devices - so he proposes that the industry adopt standards for "workload management" protocols to limit distractions and make devices consistent. He says that either the industry will agree on the issue - or regulators will. "NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin.) is very interested in driver distraction right now," he says.
So are others in this technical session, includingCambridge Research's Erwin Boer, who has taken well-known studies of human "behavioral entropy" and applied them to driver distraction. Mr. Boer has quantified erratic driving like that mentioned above as the prime evidence that even the best drivers can't divide their attention between talking on the phone and driving adroitly.
Like Mr. Kantowitz, Mr. Boer advocates a control system that can recognize when a driver is in a complex traffic situation and delay "connection" of certain information like phone calls, e-mail and other onboard messages. Both researchers believe that the industry must develop systems that can not only prioritize communication inputs but also analzye the driving environment.