Sometimes I think that those trying to create the automobiles of the future are dumb as dirt. Engineers and computer software developers are so busy trying to see if they can get your next car to offer some new capability, they are blind to logic that suggests no car should have that capability in the first place. And the National Transportation Safety Board, doing its job, is demanding that automakers quit putting things into vehicles that would create more distracted drivers. The automakers swear that is the last thing on their mind, yet keep making their vehicles unnecessarily complex.Case in point: There was once a time when, if your vehicle was in motion, you could neither load any new information into your vehicle’s navigation system nor change how it operated on the setup screen. That’s no longer true in many vehicles. Now motorists can enter addresses for road guidance, go the set up screen and alter how the navigation system looks, and do all sorts of other things that no one has any business doing while driving 75 mph down the highway. Why did anyone think that was safe?Industry Can’t Control Itself …What about drivers whose vehicles don’t have navigation systems? They reply on the same apps in their smartphones. And here Silicon Valley developers obviously have never designed any safeguards into their apps to prevent a person from using a smartphone in a dangerous manner while driving. Things have gotten out of control so badly that our most recent transportation bill, the Grow America Act, would give the government total control over all in-car or phone navigation devices. Pundits howl about government regulations and oversight, but time and time again business proves completely incapable of drawing the line on dangerous activities. For example, over the past 30 years automakers demanded that the government lay off any new fuel efficiency standards, saying they were working overtime to improve their vehicles’ gasoline mileage on their own. Yet the overall fuel economy of our new car fleet fell in that same period. Suddenly the Bush Administration said, “Enough!” and put new mileage guidelines in place, and then the Obama Administration added the second stage of fuel efficiency standards; and within a couple of years real and substantial fuel efficiency improvements appeared in new cars. You’re Not OK, I’m Not OKNow, though, things are about to get really weird. At the Detroit Telematics conference earlier this month, General Motors showed off its newest app, the DiDi Plate, which it says it plans on adding first to its vehicle infotainment systems in China. If your vehicle were equipped with this software, while you were driving you could capture the license plate of the car in front of you; the software would then find the cell phone number of that vehicle’s owner, and you could send him or her a text message. Think of the fun there. Certainly you could now express your displeasure in a nasty text to an aggressive driver weaving in and out of traffic, who nearly took off your front bumper cutting into your lane. Talk about irony: You’re mad at a driver exhibiting unsafe driving practices and so you end up texting him or her angrily — while driving. Great, now we have two unsafe drivers on the road instead of one. What a great innovation.The Norman Bates OptionBut GM also pointed out how great DiDi Plate would be for those lonely male drivers who might spot an attractive female driver. Using their DiDi Plate the men could scan her license plate, hook up to that woman’s cell phone and ask her out on a date. Really? Somehow you feel sorry for any attractive female driver. We’d be turning our highways into stalking lanes where the most attractive women, married or not, might be faced with hundreds of text requests for a date per week. Now, how creepy is that? Women, possibly your daughter or wife, could be accosted in their vehicles daily; and aggressive drivers, already apparently mad at the world, would be subjected to digital tongue-lashings about their driving behavior in real time. That’s sure to make them rethink their dangerous driving and make them kinder, gentler motorists.Toyota’s Remote Home ControlNot to be outdone, Toyota and Panasonic are working on an app that lets you monitor and activate your home appliances while motoring. That’s right, you will be able to turn your home A/C unit off or on, start your washing machine or even scroll through the cable TV listings and mark shows you want to record, to view once you get home. That’s assuming you survive the automobile accident you are about to have because you’re trying to remember what HBO channel the “Game of Thrones” finale was on so you can set the “record” function. Toyota and Panasonic claim they will introduce this new system later this year, and the one redeeming feature on this is that one has to have Panasonic home appliances for this system to connect to. It’s a saving grace only because no one owns a Panasonic A/C, washing machine or DVR — at least, not in this country.Remember, these apps are coming from automakers who maintain with straight faces to federal regulators that they are absolutely committed to driver safety and they would never think of doing anything that could cause any new distractions while driving. The reality is that car manufacturers are making all sorts of things unnecessarily complicated, and for no apparent reason, even without adding any new nonsense. A great case in point was the magnificent Range Rover Executive Edition SUV I reviewed this week. Say you want to turn on the leather seats’ air conditioning system. There’s a button on the dash, but that only takes you to the main computer screen, which puts up a series of buttons to either cool or heat the seats. Once that’s done, you have to punch another button to take you back to either the navigation screen or the audio system. Why not make that same initial push button actuate or turn off the seat heating or cooling? That’s what most car manufacturers do. Then you only have to do one thing instead of three things — all while taking your eyes off the road.Stop Adding, Start Perfecting!As I’ve written before, the computerization of automobiles has been one of the great accomplishments of the auto industry over the past 30 years. But the best systems should work automatically; they shouldn’t require any real driver involvement other than to push one button to accomplish what they want to. They emphatically should not make drivers sit there and move screen after screen after screen in the infotainment system to find that one button they need to hit — and then reverse the process to get back to the primary screen they were using.Or better yet, why not simply perfect the smarter apps already in place to make them work flawlessly? For example, take traffic congestion warnings in navigation systems. Nissan’s is the best, and everyone should emulate their software. One could easily add weather overlays right onto the navigation screen to warn of heavy rain ahead. And it should do so without the driver having to do anything but turn on the vehicle. Car owners would love that feature. Instead, the day is coming when you’ll be driving at a high rate of speed while finding TV shows to record at home while texting the woman in front of you for a date; and if she says yes, you can turn on your washing machine to make sure you have something clean to wear.Actually, I’m kidding. She’s going to think you’re a stalker.
© Ed Wallace 2014 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism. He hosts Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; read all of Ed’s work at www.insideautomotive.com