Facebook Updates While Driving? C’mon!

General Motors’ OnStar division has developed a system that provides drivers the ability to record audio updates that could be posted to a user’s Facebook page. The system would also allow drivers to hear their friends’ status updates read to them by a computerized voice. OnStar says the idea reflects society’s growing desire to be connected at all times.
What could possibly be so urgent to post or read on Facebook that it would require a driver’s immediate attention?

Research from the University of Utah found that distraction from cell phone use while driving (hand held or hands free) extends a driver’s reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. I’d need to see some hard data to convince me that the distraction level wouldn’t be similar for those listening to posts or adding their own posts on a Facebook page.

As late as last week, OnStar was apparently still deciding whether it will make this service available to drivers or not. “The company will not implement a new service simply because it’s technically feasible, it has to be the right thing to do for the customer,” OnStar said. “All of our technologies are rigorously evaluated prior to launch.”

Company president Chris Preuss says OnStar has data showing there is no correlation between pushing a single button and vehicle crashes, and justifies the service by saying people will continue to send text messages in cars and update Facebook statuses from their phones, so the company decided to let them do it “with safety in mind”. “I don’t think we’re at all engaging in activities that are going to make it worse,” he said. “We’re absolutely engaging in activities that will make things better.”

If we accept the argument of ‘people will do it anyway’, why don’t we apply it to speeding, drinking while driving, and drag racing on residential streets? Why not enable drivers to take these dangerous actions – ‘with safety in mind’?

I get OnStar’s motivation – if nothing else, the deployment of this service should boost their core business of responding to accidents.

GM isn’t alone

GM isn’t the only auto manufacturer going down the distraction path. Ford Motor Co.’s Sync system, available in 2011 Ford and Lincoln models, is very similar. Besides allowing drivers to hear and reply to text messages, Ford’s system also allows drivers to interact with cell phone apps for things like Internet radio and Twitter.

Opponents of these technologies point to the existing body of evidence to say these systems will lead to greater driver distraction, but Ford has a different point of view. They believe that systems like these allow drivers to do things they’re already doing anyway, such as checking text messages, while keeping their eyes on the road.

Ford spokesman Alan Hall said, “Our research has shown that the most dangerous part of having these devices in your car is when they take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel.”

That flies in the face of the information on the U.S. Department of Transportation website. Distracted driving is defined as “any non-driving activity a person engages in that has the potential to distract him or her from the primary task of driving and increase the risk of crashing.

The site goes on to say there are three main types of distraction:

  • Visual — taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual — taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive — taking your mind off what you’re doing

Hmm. Does Facebooking while driving qualify as a distraction under this definition?

Following OnStar and Ford’s assertion, your eyes and hand would only have to be off the road for a tiny moment – and we don’t hear recommendations urging a ban on pushing a button to change your radio station….  But there’s that last pesky cognitive point about taking your mind off driving and focusing attention on Facebook, that’s the deal breaker.

To learn more about distracted driving, see my blog post Distracted Driving? Take the Distractology 101 Learning Challenge.

And that’s not all

GM’s OnStar team is also testing a system which would allow drivers to hear text messages read to them by the “OnStar Virtual Advisor” computerized voice. By pressing a button on the steering wheel, drivers would also be able to reply using one of four pre-written responses.

The only message your car should be sharing with you is “keep your focus on the road”.



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