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How Safe Can Apple CarPlay Be If It Takes Your Eyes Off The Road?

Phone-based infotainment systems snub safety with heavy visual focus

As I watched an Apple representative show Máté Petrány all the phone-things Apple’s CarPlay will allow a user to do in their car and on a screen that looks more like their phone, I couldn’t help but think – easier means less distraction, but why are we still touching and looking at screens

Phone-based infotainment systems snub safety with heavy visual focusS

CarPlay basically lets me use one hand to access my favorite podcasts via a touchscreen rather than using one hand to pick up my phone and select my favorite podcast via a smaller touchscreen. Sure, I can use CarPlay hands free, but that isn’t the focus here. It’s all about having an iPhone-like experience in your car. The trend is to replicate a phone’s OS on an increasingly bigger-and-bigger screen rather than focusing on ways to make everything more hands free-friendly.

Let’s assume most of the processing power and information (i.e. communication, search results, navigation, etc.) will come directly from your mobile phone. In your car think of the phone as more like a desktop computer – one part processor, one part Internet connection. But instead of the desktop’s traditional interface, a mouse (hands) and monitor (eyes) your phone’s interface is 100% voice (ears and mouth).

That is how infotainment systems should be engineered, regardless of who is designing them; engineered as if there is no screen.

But why are automakers and OS-makers hell bent on elaborate graphical interfaces for in-car systems? What if we looked at infotainment as a vocal conversation where the driver is asking the car to do something through the phone?

How did I come to this conclusion and why now

A few things happened recently. At the last CES Android (Google) announced its new endeavor, Open Auto Alliance. While it may sound like another muli-national auto lobbying association the group is actually a collection of automakers, Google and Nividia who want Android in your dash. Also, recently, we learned that Ford would partner with Blackberry to use their QNX in their future infotainment systems and earlier this week, like I mentioned above, we saw the live version of Apple’s CarPlay.

What do all these systems have in common – they are designed around a visual interface. (Note: we haven’t seen ‘MyQNX’ for Ford)

Visual is distracting. Visual is the safety threat (second only to the human, of course). Why hasn’t Google stepped up to say, “Timeout. We’ve developed HUD expertise with Glass. We can make in-car HUD the new infotainment.”

While I’m uncertain of the physical limitations or cost restrictions on making something like this a reality, I am certain the safety implications of looking at a center stack vs. looking through the windshield are very clear.

It’s also important to point out that the President has asked for $24M this year to combat distracted driving.

Phone-based infotainment systems snub safety with heavy visual focus

Google wants safe infotainment

Two days ago Google announced a new job position at its California headquarters – Program Manager, Automotive Safety. Some of the responsibilities of that position as include things like “define and execute the strategy to ensure a safe driving experience” and “maintain a comprehensive knowledge of government and automotive driving regulations and guidelines (e.g. NHTSA).” It’s clear that Google and other non-traditional tech companies are fully committed to the game of automotive tech-fotainment.

Phone-based infotainment systems snub safety with heavy visual focus

In many cases though I suspect the discussion wasn’t at all safety-related, but rather something more like this:

Phone-based infotainment systems snub safety with heavy visual focusS

The quote below comes from the Open Auto Alliance’s website:

“The expansion of the Android platform into automotive will allow our industry partners to more easily integrate mobile technology into cars and offer drivers a familiar, seamless experience so they can focus on the road.”

Focus on the road, huh? If the Human Machine Interface engineers at Android want drivers to “focus on the road” they would debut a revolutionary device that has native listening and speaking capabilities, that immediately goes into car-mode when connected to a vehicle via Bluetooth and would design an industry-wide common COMMAND button to ‘wake up’ connected phones. In other words they would put the huge visual interface second to everything else.

Instead many, brands and engineers, seem fascinated by the marketing benefits (read: sex appeal and profits) of large glowing screens, which seem to go against the notion of “focus on the road.”

If tomorrow I woke up and learned that in some weird twist of fate I had become Google’s new Automotive Safety Program Manager, my first order of business would be to develop a revolutionary voice command system in conjunction with a low-cost HUD that would eliminate the need to look or touch the dash but give users complete native voice control over phone and car things.

While this would upset the highly-profitable world of $3,000-and-up infotainment systems automakers want to sell you, it would be more in line with Google’s longstanding goal of “do no harm” and would bold well with safety advocates and regulators.

So, Google, when do I start?

Written by Lewis Shaw

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