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In-car infotainment systems have been around for decades, the first being Vauxhall’s OnStar in 1996, which provided a subscription-based communication service including in-vehicle security, emergency services, hands-free calling, turn-by-turn navigation, and remote diagnostics systems.

Although OnStar was a pioneer in this space, systems today are far more advanced and offer a completely new experience within the vehicle. They now support a hyper-connected society that links the vehicle to the wider world, including mobile phones and credit cards.

For example Apple Car Play and Android Auto are leading infotainment systems that have revolutionised the communication between car and phone, allowing users to access different features, such as Spotify and Google Maps, through their car’s dashboard.

Along with this change, we have seen a further emphasis on voice-recognition systems, which allows the driver and passengers to go hands-free, opening the door for new possibilities within the vehicle.

However, with all this innovation and entertainment coming into the vehicle, is it actually safer than other infotainment systems seen over the year?

To find out more, I speak with Dr Neale Kinnear, Head of Behavioural Science at TRL.

Neale Kinnear (1)

Safety First

We have seen an influx of voice-activated technology within modern vehicles today, which has made in-car infotainment systems much safer by improving accessibility with less distraction.

Kinnear believes that it has helped make operating these systems much safer than more physical infotainment systems.

“We have been asking technology companies around the world how we can use innovations like voice-activation to make the use of mobile phones in cars safer,” he says. “Doing this restricts some unnecessary usage on a driver’s phone and makes it more appropriate for in-vehicle use.”

The principle of systems such as Apple Car Play and Android Auto is to restrict the activities on phones to only those that might be relevant to driving, such as navigation and music selection. In this aspect, this is a positive, using technology to try and limit the opportunity for people to use their phones whilst driving, eliminating the use of things that are not needed such as texting and social media.

However, says Kinnear, these companies could go much further in their efforts to protect people behind the wheel.

“These systems still allow interaction with such things as text messaging, which drivers can still read and reply to whilst driving, but I do believe that this is a positive step in the right direction,” he says. “Technology companies are taking the first steps in trying to use technology to combat some areas of distraction that we were concerned about previously.”

Kenny Luo W2jauv18jy0 Unsplash

Trust Issues

Today, it seems that society trusts large corporations like Google and Apple because they provide our mobile phones, which means we expect them to get it right. But, if you look at history, there are many cases of large organisations getting things wrong.

“There needs to be some form of regulatory body like you have with Euro NCAP, where organisations can demonstrate that their systems are safe and meet the minimum level of driver interaction for operating,” says Kinnear. “This is important as they can show these systems to an industry authority before they roll it out to the public.”

It might come as a surprise, but no one has asked these companies to provide evidence before putting them into the market. This is incredible when you think about the number of users and the position in which they are going to be operated, especially while people are driving.

What makes matter worse, the regulations in place today are only enforcing penalties and fines for phone-in-hand activities and largely ignore the role and associated usage of mobile phones as a potential distraction.

“If you were to speak to anyone in the police, they would tell you that they see a lot more use of phones than just people speaking on them,” says Kinnear.

For this reason, it is important to look at how we as an industry tackle phone usage while driving. However, this may very well be down to changing the psychology behind the way people drive.

Changing Driver Behaviour

We’ve all seen it before; people sitting on their phones at a red light or holding a phone to their ear whilst driving. This has been happening since mobile phones were invented. So how do we combat this?

Even in ‘car mode’ when accessing an application like Spotify or Waze, there is an override button, usually labeled as ‘passenger mode’, which will instantly reset your phone to normal settings.

This poses the question of whether it is actually possible to get rid of distractions for drivers who are still actively trying to use their phones whilst driving. It is vital that the industry figures out how it can change the perception of phone usage in vehicles and get people to realise the risk behind what they are doing.

“This comes down to a combination of technology and culture,” says Kinnear. “On the technology side, it’s about the phones becoming smarter and understanding when a user is driving and locking certain functions. From a cultural perspective, it comes down to developing a safety understanding of the use of phones when driving a vehicle.

Society needs to blackball the likes of texting and driving, which would be the only way to significantly lower accidents and fatalities due to driver distraction. By making this socially wrong, people will start to acknowledge the risk of using their phone behind the wheel.

“There needs to be a shift in our behaviour, similar to drink driving,” adds Kinnear. “It needs to become a social wrong to be using your phone whilst being a driver in the car. At this moment, I don’t think it is the case.”

For example, many passengers would accept the driver using their phone but would be outraged if someone was drinking behind the wheel. Once we can achieve this, we will start to see change.

For now, we must welcome new technology that improves driver safety, but also regulate it effectively to make sure that we avoid any new distraction that put lives at risk. Safety must always come first.

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