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Is Automotive Technology a driver to safety or to distraction?

The Irish Motoring Writers Association (IMWA) seminar posed this question at its 2013 Automotive Forum held at the RDS in Dublin recently.  The event was attended not only by Journalists working in the Motoring sector but also by Road Safety experts and, following the two keynote presentations. There was a lively debate which sought to tease out the limits on the use of technology to deliver ever more safety for drivers and other road users.

The event sponsor was Continental Tyres and their representative, Tom Dennigan, described the event as “a valuable event that helps to spread knowledge and promote discussion in relating to motoring and its wider implications for our society.”

IMWA Chairman, Gerry Murphy, in his introduction to the two principle speakers, Pim van der Jagt, who is Managing Director of Ford of Europe’s Aachen based Research Centre, and Dr. Natasha Merat, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds based Institute for Transport Studies, said: “to answer the question that was our point of departure for the Forum, I think that the driver is ultimately responsible for ensuring he or she manages and limits the distraction potential of technology and any other external influences that would divert their attention from the important task at hand”.

However, it became clear as both presentations went along that finding this balance between providing information and other technology that is intended to reduce the risk of accident and bring down driver stress, and, literally, taking the driver’s eye off the road is no easy matter. In an aside to his formal text Pim van der Jagt raised another issue, that the speed of development of GPS, Cloud and other technology that is being delivered by the IT and mobile phone industries is hugely quicker than the development of new vehicles.

New generation phones can appear at six monthly intervals, a new car development could take seven years. Thus, the technology platform of the car is always going to be lagging behind the IT equipment available. He commented on how blasé we have become about automotive technology and, in particular, the fact that now even some of the smallest cars have technologies that up to a couple of years ago could only be enjoyed by  a small number of drivers as they were the preserve of the more expensive luxury brands. He gave an example of the Ford Focus which, thanks to Active Park Assist technology, can park itself into a tight parking spot with minimal input from the driver.

He went on to say;” in terms of new technologies that motorists will see in the near term, we will roll out a range of services based on two-way vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication systems that will enable cars to communicate with each other about driving and traffic conditions. Using a dedicated short-range communications network the system will also be able to communicate with similarly equipped vehicles that are out of the driver’s line of sight. For example, if a car suddenly performs an emergency stop around a corner, cars coming behind could be advised in good time so that they can adapt their speed before they arrive at the scene”.

Van der Jagt went on to talk about the impending arrival of vehicle-to-infrastructure (VTI) technology. This will enable cars to communicate with the road infrastructures and traffic management systems so as to make journeys as smooth as possible, and reducing emissions and fuel consumption.

Speaking following studies done at the Institute for Transport Studies, Dr. Natasha Merat said: “without a doubt technology has contributed hugely to strides in improving road safety over the last number of decades, but we need to be careful that we don’t undo some of that progress by providing a dangerous level of information overload through the addition of a broad range of ‘attention grabbing’ technologies inside the car”

She went on, “we know that younger, inexperienced drivers are particularly prone to distractions while driving, whether they come from in-car distractions or external influences.” The distraction level can increase significantly once other impairments come into play. The use of mobile phone scores very highly on the listing of major distractions.

In the discussion which concluded the event great concern was expressed about the concept that technology can lull the driver into a false sense of security and seriously reduce his ability to react to danger. It is clear that there is a fundamental mis-match between what aids safety on the road and what makes the experience of driving a car or other vehicle a relaxed and enjoyable way to travel.

By Howard Knott FCILT


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