CarPlay and distracted driving

I was sitting in the passenger seat of the car, terrified. My friend just wouldn't stop using her tech as she drove. The entire trip not second went by when she wasn't paying more attention to it than to the road. I finally had to yell that, if she didn't stop, I'd get out and walk. And live. She acquiesced, but whenever I saw her drive up or away again her eyes were never fully on the road and it scared the life out of me. Somehow we both survived high school but the experience made me hate AM/FM radios, their knobby little tuners, and human compulsion to surf channels in few-minute "good song" bites. And that was long, long before the advent of phones or texting or CarPlay.

That's the context I bring with me when I hear about concerns that Apple's newly rebranded iOS in the Car interface will lead to an increase in distracted driving. It's the context I bring with me from a decade of commuting downtown and back every day for work, watching people eat, read newspapers across the steering wheel, apply makeup, swap tapes and CDs (ask your parents!), play Gameboys, get into fights, struggle to read nigh-impenetrable road signs, and yes, text, all while driving. I had an iPod, podcasts, and audio books with me. I'd get in, plug in, press play, and I'd be fine for the roughly 90 minutes it took me each way. But I'd be terrified of the people around me. Always.

I say all this not to diminish or disparage the idea that CarPlay could be distracting to drivers. I say all this to emphasize it, and to point out that it's by no means a new problem, and by no means one restricted to CarPlay. And that can be a problem.

Too often our thoughts and laws are shaped by headlines rather than by us using our heads. Banning texting while driving is fine, but leaving it legal to play video games while driving is not. Banning the use of cell phones in cars is fine but leaving it legal to read a novel while driving is not.

Attacking a problem is fine. Basing that attack on the popularity of specific platforms, features, or objects is not. Texting is a problem because it's distracting. Cell phones are a problem because they're distracting. The problem isn't the hot new technology, the problem is the distraction it causes. More specifically, the problem is that many of us, as human beings, decide our safety and the safety of others is less important than our not being bored for a few minutes or miles. We're the problem.

Piecemeal laws might offer some relief but if I'm ever hit by someone distracted by a radio, newspaper, or sandwich, or anyone I love is ever hit by someone distracted by anything other than texting, cell phones, or CarPlay, my rage and grief will be less not one iota.

There will be certain functions that we as a society agree are beneficial enough that they're worth implementing in cars even if certain people abuse them to the point of distraction. Music and audio has traditionally been one of those. GPS navigation has become one as well. Making calls and receiving messages as well, though the latter far more recently. In case of emergency that makes sense. For law enforcement, taxi drivers, and anyone else who works on the road, it does as well. For casual use, I'm not so sure. But let's lump it in there as well for the sake of argument.

If we accept these things — music, navigation, communication — as important enough that they should be in cars than making sure they cause as little distraction as possible and leave themselves open to as little abuse as possible is key.

It becomes a design an interface problem.

Right now in-car systems are controlled by a mishmash of capacitive and resistive touch screens, knobs and buttons, and natural language voice. Some require less effort, some work regardless of whether they encounter skin or glove, some are tactile and some are not, some require more visual attention and some do not.

Yet technology is advancing. Siri isn't perfect yet, but when it works it requires no more attention than a conversation. On the iPhone it can still be crippled by a poor network connection, which would be a major problem in a car. Getting Siri to work locally would mitigate a lot of that. Google is already doing on-board voice parsing. Their "always listening" approach also removes the need to press a button first.

Heads up displays, which paint information not on a display in the car but the windshield in front of you might reduce the need to take your visual attention off the road, but the control scheme will still require a lot of thought.

My point is we are now far ahead and not ahead at all when it comes to bringing tools to the car that are both extremely useful but also minimally distracting.

It's an extremely tough problem, and one for which hyperbole and headline hunting does a profound disservice. And for that reason I hope CarPlay gets a lot of scrutiny, feedback, and iteration. Apple has proven to be good at solving tough problems and music, navigation, and communications in cars is a serious and important one to solve.