Car manufacturer GM is walking a fine line. Eager to make a comeback, the car company wants to provide a lot more access to high-tech information and entertainment in its cars. At the same time, the company wants to avoid causing more accidents because of driver distraction. Could it thread that needle? To find out, I took a trip to Detroit to experience the company's latest OnStar features and Bluetooth integration with cellphones.
GM OnStar president Chris Preuss told us a startling statistic that probably pertains to those of us in the 45-to-65 age group: "Only 50% of Bluetooth-capable car owners actually bother to pair up their Bluetooth phones with the car's systems," he said. His company aims to change that, making it easier to use all of the technology associated with GM vehicles. That's good news for those of us who don't want to fiddle with all of this extra technology inside a car, but would like to take advantage of its multiple benefits.
A lot of those capabilities will use voice activation. Does that make it safer? "I disagree that a car app is safer because it's a voice activated," said Mickey Bly, GM's Executive Director of Electrical Architectures and Infotainment. That's why GM is doing extensive beta testing and simulator research, figuring out just how distracting certain activities are while driving. Bly says the company is adhering to guidelines for driver workload. "Tasks should take no longer than 2 seconds to complete, and functions to should take no longer than 20 seconds to activate," said Bly. Included in these guidelines, which have been agreed upon by almost all car manufacturers, are standardized screen/dash angularity, as well as standardized and easily recognized icons and symbols.
The company has big plans for its OnStar system, which it relaunched yesterday with enhanced capabilities. Building on its core features of locating your vehicle if it's stolen, remote diagnostics, and remotely unlocking your car doors if you misplaced your keys, in the past few years OnStar has grown way beyond that.
OnStar is the most helpful feature I've ever seen in a car. A simple push of its little blue button uses a wireless network to quickly put you in touch with a real person. When you ask for directions, GPS instructions are automatically downloaded to your onboard navigation system. You can even ask general questions, such as "where's the nearest pizza joint," and quicker than you could enter it in your GPS unit, the coordinates will be downloaded to your car and visible on your dashboard. It's simply remarkable.
GM's Mickey Bly and his engineering staff showed me some of the new features that are currently being beta tested at the company's Detroit facility. In a new capability that's not part of the OnStar system, engineers demonstrated how your car will be able to read your text messages to you from your cellphone, connected to the car's audio system via Bluetooth. You can press a button on the steering wheel and reply to that text, but you're limited to a set of four preset replies. Take a look at this video I shot of the demonstration:
The GM researchers showed us even more tricks. One useful capability is the ability to notify you if your car has a flat tire, helpfully alerting you via an Android smartphone application. Less impressive was its beta test of OnStar's Facebook integration, which uses text-to-speech technology to read your latest Facebook newsfeed messages to you, and then lets you verbally update your Facebook status by recording your voice, and then sending that audio file to your Facebook page. I thought that Facebook implementation was lame. Think about it: When you're using Facebook, when was the last time you clicked on an audio file to hear someone update her status?
More impressive were the capabilities Mickey Bly told us are in the works for GM vehicles, including an app store that will be carefully curated by GM to minimize driver distraction. He predicted that within nine months, GM will offer seamless integration between smartphones and its vehicles, letting you access all of the music, pictures and contacts on your phone. Part of that integration will be Wi-Fi connectivity, and along with that, Bly mentioned that popular Internet music discovery app Pandora will be available.
Out of all the technological wizardry GM showed me at this demonstration, I thought the best idea that will make our lives easier is already available in some GM vehicles. That OnStar capability, available on vehicles equipped with its system, requires a $10 a month subscription, and gives you a live person on the other side of its little blue button. That means you don't need to be distracted at all when you've missed a turn, you're lost, or you want to enter a new destination in your GPS system.
On the other hand, in my view, any of the new capabilities that make it easier to make phone calls or interact with the Internet will add to driver distraction, no matter how clever the implementation. For instance, it's obviously safer to avoid texting while driving by redirecting someone who's texting you with GM's four preset replies, but I still think dealing with texts while driving takes your mind out of the vehicle. Your attention is directed elsewhere. That notion is supported by a 2003 University of Utah study, concluding that talking on a cellphone while driving gives you "inattention blindness," reducing your accident-avoidance capability to that of a drunk driver.
GM's aware of this, and is taking steps to add tech only if safety isn't compromised. In a statement, a company spokesperson said, "GM's OnStar has always operated on the premise that while the possibilities of technological innovation are endless, 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. All of our technologies are rigorously evaluated prior to launch."
How about it, readers? Is it worth it to have more helpful technology inside a vehicle, even if it distracts drivers?