- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2000

Meet the Cul de Sacs, the suburban family of the near future.
Today the family is going for a ride. Little Bobby and Susie are seated in the middle row of the minivan, watching the video "The Lion King" on the VCR. Mom is in the passenger seat, checking her e-mail on the voice-activated Internet hookup. Dad is driving and is now consulting the computer navigation system for directions.
Later, the children will hook up the Nintendo. Mom will warm lunch in the microwave, and Dad will tune the satellite radio to a ball game being played 3,000 miles away.


Car travel that resembles transportation on the TV cartoon "The Jetsons" is, depending on your lifestyle and model year, coming soon or already here. The marriage of technology and a time-strapped public has resulted in cars becoming extensions of home.
"We spend an awful lot more time in our cars than we used to," says Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA of the Mid-Atlantic region.
"The Washington area has the second-longest commuting time in the nation, averaging more than 30 minutes and second only to Los Angeles," he says. "Spending more time in the car can be lost time, and people are trying to make up for that. They are trying to cram 30 hours into a 24-hour day by having electronic devices in the car. That can be good, to a point, but every time you bring something new into the passenger compartment of a car, it is going to challenge drivers."
In other words, just because motorists can send a fax while driving down the highway, that doesn't necessarily mean they should.
"It is a complicated issue," says Thomas Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which studies traffic safety issues. "The kinds of things we are doing in a car are different than anything in the past."
Mr. Dingus is one of the participants in an ongoing discussion and public forum that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is conducting to determine just how distracted drivers of the 2000s are.
The NHTSA estimates that 44 percent of drivers in the United States have cellular phones, 7 percent have e-mail access and 3 percent have fax capabilities within their cars. The organization also estimates that about 25 percent of the 6.3 million crashes that occur annually involve some sort of distraction. The NHTSA is trying to determine what impact the new technological options will have on safety.

Coming soon to a car near you …

Auto manufacturers definitely are keeping the overscheduled family in mind when designing cars of the future. Just look at the Windstar Solutions concept vehicle Ford introduced in spring.
Granted, a concept car is a bit of a fantasy creation, says Mary Louise Majewski, a Ford spokeswoman. However, many of the concept car's options soon may be at dealers' showrooms.
The Windstar Solutions van features a refrigerator compartment in the cargo area and a smaller cold unit near the rear passenger seats. It has a microwave in the rear area and cup holders that will keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. The rear seats have tray tables that fold into the passengers' laps, giving them space to prop up laptop computers. The van has a built-in TV-VCR combination. The van also features a small washer-dryer unit (never enter the office with baby spit-up on your shirt again), a trash compactor and a wet/dry vacuum.
"People are extremely time-starved," Ms. Majewski says. "There is no time to run home in between school and work and activities. We keep hearing, especially from women, 'I would love to by able to do this in my car… . ' People these days need their cars to be like their living rooms. Not that cars will ever replace the home, but we should be able to enhance the on-the-road experience."
Ms. Majewski says that if the Windstar Solutions options ever become available to the public, many of them such as the washer-dryer and microwave would operate only while the van is not moving.
"We are attuned to the distraction factor," she says, noting that the current vehicles with entertainment centers also come with headphones so the driver will not be distracted.
Auto manufacturers also are working on systems in which the Internet can be accessed with a voice command. Drivers and passengers can get stock quotes, traffic and weather information in real time, the same way they do on the Internet.
"The car will become another link in your network," says Fara Warner, spokeswoman for Ford's telematics project. "This will all be done with voice commands so you will always have your eye on the road and your hand on the wheel, so you won't have cognitive overload.
Consultants at Volvo, the Swedish auto manufacturer, have advised that if the Internet is to become a popular option in cars, it would have to be different in appearance than what people are used to on their home computers. There should be fewer flashing graphics and advertisements, and no tasks should take more than 15 seconds to complete or two seconds to look at, the consultants say.
However, a few seconds to check e-mail from the parking lot may make lives more harried rather than less complicated, says University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson, who studies the way people use their time.
"Even though these types of things are supposedly timesaving devices, they don't really save time," he says. "There is a certain novelty aspect to this type of technology. People are always trying to look busy, to juggle a bunch of things. People are running so frantically that 'timesaving' has taken on a life of its own. Using these items in a car isn't really going to save time; it is just going to redistribute it. It will still take time to run a washing machine or retrieve e-mail."

Assessing safety risks

With multitasking comes safety risks, but the NHTSA is still trying to figure out how big that safety risk might be. Even if a navigational device is voice-activated, for instance, it still diverts attention away from the road when the driver retrieves information.
"Right now all the evidence we have is anecdotal," says Mike Goodman, engineering research psychologist for the NHTSA. "We know that cell phones have an impact on crashes, but even that data is poor, and we don't know the magnitude of the problem. But the use of the cell phone is minor compared with other devices such as e-mail or navigational systems. Any distraction that takes your attention away from the road increases your reaction time and increases your risk of a crash."
The NHTSA soon will begin using a $50 million driving simulator, with which the group can test scenarios involving high-tech gadgets and their distraction potential in a controlled environment. The simulator, located at the University of Iowa, will go into use this fall.
"When testing this, we cannot put the driver at risk," Mr. Goodman says. "This will feel just like a regular car."
The information NHTSA gleans from the simulator should be important in years to come. General Motors alone estimates it will have 1 million cars with navigation systems on the road by the end of 2000.
Based on evidence thus far, Mr. Dingus says trying to program a navigation system while driving can increase the risk of accident up to 30 times. Some systems, such as in Ford and GM cars, will not allow a driver to program in a destination while the car is moving.
The growth in popularity of the cell phone over the past decade has been the test case for all the gadgets to come. However, even though half of all drivers carry a cell phone, there are few ways to restrict its use in the name of safety.
Earlier this month, a New Jersey town became the first jurisdiction to ban using hand-held cell phones while driving. Several similar bills have been introduced locally but have failed.
So until there is hard evidence that technology is having an impact on safety, the debate will go on.
The discussion is not a new one, Mr. Anderson says. As far back as 1930, in the early days of radio, there was widespread debate as to whether having a radio in the car would prove to be a road hazard.
Seventy years later, so much, yet so little, has changed.
"I understand people use their car as an extension of their home and office," Mr. Anderson says. "That's fine. But they should remember to pull over and not do these things while driving. We don't need to make their use illegal. Bad driving is already illegal."

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