DETROIT — I’m barreling along a rural Michigan highway at 75 mph in a gray Ford Taurus X when I glance down to check a number on a screen.
It can’t be more than two seconds, but when I look back up, I’m inches from plowing into a huge green truck. Panicked, I slam on the brakes.
Even though I’m in Virttex, the Ford simulator that uses virtual reality to give you the eerily real sensation that you’re flying down the highway past cars and barns, I still feel shaken.
I made the mistake of taking my eyes off the road for more than 1.5 seconds, which is the danger zone, according to technology experts at Ford headquarters.
Ford, Chrysler, Chevy and other car companies are betting on the proposition that, as long as your eyes don’t stray from the road for more than a moment, your other senses can enjoy a cornucopia of diversions on your dashboard.
I worried in a prior column that cars with the elaborate and popular new “in-car connectivity” sounded like death traps. Ford Sync lets you sync up to apps, reading your Twitter feeds to you. MyFord Touch plays your iPod on demand and reads your texts to you — including emoticons — and allows you to choose one of 10 pre-written responses (“I’m on my way,” “I’m outside,” “OK”). It also has voice-activated 3-D navigation that allows you to merely announce “I’m hungry” or “Find Chinese restaurant.”
Your car can even help you with a bad mood by giving you ambient lighting, vibrating your seat or heating your steering wheel.
Ford executives invited me to Detroit to experience their snazzy new technology firsthand.
They are on the cusp of a system featuring the futuristic avatar Eva, the vaguely creepy face and voice of a woman on your dashboard who can read you your e-mail, update your schedule, recite articles from newspapers, guide you to the restaurant where you’re having lunch and recommend a selection from your iPod. Ford’s working on a Web browser, which would be locked while driving.
Remember when your car used to be a haven of peace from the world? Now it’s just a bigger, noisier and much more dangerously distracting smart phone.
Over lunch at Ford, Sue Cischke, a dynamic company executive, argued that even before cell phones and iPods,
drivers were in danger of distraction from reaching for a briefcase or shooing away a bee.
“Telling younger people not to use a cell phone is almost like saying, ‘Don’t breathe,’” she said.
Given that Americans are addicted to Web access and tech toys, she said, it will never work to simply ban them. “So we’ve got to figure out how we make people safer,” she said, “and the more people can just talk to their car like they’re talking to a passenger, the more useful it would be.”
Given that, however, we’re talking about human beings who live in an ADD world, wouldn’t it be safer to try to curb the addiction, rather than indulging it? Nobody thought you could get young people to pay for music after downloading it for free, either, but they do.
David Teater, a former market research consultant to auto manufacturers, lost his 12-year-old son in a distracted-driving accident in Grand Rapids, Mich., seven years ago. A 20-year-old nanny driving her charge in her employer’s Hummer was so immersed in a cell phone call that she ran a red light and smashed into Teater’s wife’s Chevy Suburban. Now he works at the National Safety Council.
He says he doesn’t expect car companies — which are trying to make cars more seductive — to be arbiters of safety. “They were slow to move toward seat belts and airbags until we, the customer, said we want it,” he said. He sees the overwrought dashboards as trouble. “We can chew gum and walk, but we can’t do two cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously.”
Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, is livid about the dashboard bells and whistles. When he saw a Ford ad with a bubbly young woman named Kelly using the new souped-up system to gab on the phone hands-free and not paying attention to the road, he called Alan Mulally, the president and CEO of Ford.
“I said to him, ‘That girl looks so distracted, it belies belief that this is what you want in terms of safety,’” LaHood told me. “Putting entertainment centers in automobiles does not contribute to safe driving. When you’re trying to update your Facebook or put out a tweet, it’s a distraction.”
He said he would compile his own statistics, meet with car executives and use the bully pulpit. “We’ll see what the auto companies can do voluntarily and what we need to do otherwise,” he said. “I don’t think drivers should be doing any of that.”