HENDERSON, Nev. – I happened to be doing a 20-hour road trip in a rented car when Apple announced CarPlay, a system that will soon allow motorists to text, check email and be entertained via their mobile devices, while roaring down the highway.
The same week it was reported that Google has hired lobbyists to fight legislation in several states that would ban drivers from wearing Google Glass while operating a vehicle. Some carmakers will begin syncing with Google Glass next year.
Not surprisingly, Apple and Google, along with several other tech companies with billions at stake, claim that creating hands-free devices for use in cars will combat distracted driving, not contribute to it. No one really knows.
But here's what we do know: Over 1,000 people are injured every day in the United States as a result of distracted driving, and nine of them die. The Centers for Disease Control, which supplies the data, said all kinds of distractions contribute – even onboard navigation systems.
Seems the more functions we have in an auto the more distracted we are likely to be, and while hands-on is worst, hands-free devices are still problematic. The Lincoln sports model I rented didn't have GPS or a phone connection, yet the array of center-console push and touch options was overwhelming.
With CarPlay, owners of Apple devices will be able to use voice commands to send and hear text messages, get directions, answer calls and utilize numerous third-party apps. With Google Glass, which will first be interfaced with Hyundai models next year, motorists can access similar data, but it will appear in visual form before their eyes, rather than as audio only. And yes, Google Glass allows wearers to watch videos – even if they're driving a car.
This has prompted lawmakers in five states to write legislation that bans Google Glass for anyone behind the wheel. Google maintains that the glasses allow motorists to keep their eyes on the road instead of having to divert their attention to the center console.
This strikes me as a massive, high-stakes confrontation between parties each claiming to be working in the public's best interests. Perhaps hands-free devices are safer than the hands-on kind, but what if they also inspire vastly more people to use them – folks who wouldn't otherwise be using any device while driving?
It's somewhat like the e-cigarette debate. Are they good because they make it possible for people to quit smoking? Or are they bad because they allow smokers to continue the habit, and even prompt some others to start?
When it comes to distracted driving, Americans are already hooked more than motorists in Europe. According to the CDC, 69 percent of Americans say they use their phones while driving. In Britain it's about 21 percent, and in Spain only 15 percent.
Would systems like CarPlay and Google Glass help? Not really, according to Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Drivers using hands-free devices may trick their brains into thinking they're paying attention, he told Bloomberg News. It's actually an "illusion."
During my drive through Nevada, where 70 mph is no big deal, I did take a hands-free call on my cellphone. Ten minutes and roughly 12 miles later, I finished the call and realized I had no recollection of anything I had seen out the window or done behind the wheel during the conversation.
Was I distracted? I never took my eyes off the road, but clearly I was not paying full attention. Similarly, many of us have used GPS – a great aid in finding our way – while discovering that the more dependent we become on the audio commands, the less in touch we are with the exits, turns, and other elements in our travels. We become less inclined to think and focus on the specifics of the task.
Nothing is going to slow down technological innovations in our cars. The business interests are huge, and the public demand is great. But make no mistake: the way we're headed, there are dangerous curves ahead.