Friday, April 04, 2008

Technology driving motorists to distraction

More tech toys not always helpful ...

"Sometime in the near future, a driver may be navigating a city street with a three-dimensional GPS interface and breezing through a self-organizing traffic light when her bumper-mounted radar sensor slows her car to avoid a close encounter with another sedan. Whew! Now if only that tune emanating from the asphalt was a bit more melodic.

Car gadgets are nothing new, but a growing crop of high-tech systems designed for both vehicles and roadways may dramatically transform how drivers commute in the 21st century. Some, like increasingly sophisticated GPS systems, offer dashboard-mounted virtual worlds complete with realistic city landmarks. Others, such as “Melody Roads,” reward drivers moving at set speeds with songs played every time their tires move over precisely cut grooves or raised patterns along a road.

But where automotive technology is concerned, can there ever be too much of a good thing?

Helpful or harmful?
With so many recent arrivals popping up around the world, “I’m confident in saying we don’t know very much,” said Rob Foss, a senior research scientist at the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center in Chapel Hill. “Some of this stuff is going to be terribly dangerous and some of it is going to be tremendously helpful, and probably everything in between. We have no idea, but we’re really worried.”

The potential for driving while distracted, a danger already well-documented among cell phone users, is one major concern. So is the difficulty in predicting whether drivers will be able to understand often complex navigation and safety systems, and how they’ll change their behavior as a result.

Unlike the drug approval process governed by the Food and Drug Administration, many car systems are sold independently of the vehicles, complicating the ability of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to monitor their safety.

“So from a regulatory side, there’s some gaps in terms of who’s responsible,” said John Lee, Director of Human Factors Research at the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Also, there hasn’t been a really well-stated or well-defined arrangement for assessing how new technology is changing driving for the better or the worse.”

One product set to hit U.S. markets this year is a software package that allows GPS devices to display three-dimensional maps of road elevation, surrounding terrain, nearby buildings and other landmarks. Budapest, Hungary-based Nav N Go, which introduced its iGO 8 system to North American drivers in January at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is calculating that photorealism will dominate the navigation market within the next five years.

From a purely navigational standpoint, CEO Leon van de Pas said his company’s 3-D interface isn’t inherently better than existing software. What sets it apart is its use of landmarks to provide visual cues for drivers as they near their final destinations. “People like to have it as realistic as possible,” he said. “That’s why Google Earth is so popular."    (Continued via MSNBC)    [Usability Resources]

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