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Dashboards that distract Part 4

May 9, 2013 - Paul Giannamore
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has let loose a 200-plus page document to auto manufacturers offering non-binding guidelines on how to design a dashboard that doesn’t drive a driver to distraction and into an accident.

If you are driving a car that is more than about six years old, you probably have little to worry about. You might have a little screen on the dashboard that displays the outside temperature or vehicle service information or tire pressures or instantaneous fuel mileage, and maybe the radio station frequency.

What NHTSA is concerned with is the future of vehicles. Take a look at the stuff that is in Mercedes, Audi and BMW, for instance. The three German luxury marques all have some variation on a computer-mouse scheme, featuring a rotary knob to move through menus and a series of buttons around the knob to click to make selections or move forward and back through the screens displayed on the monitor in the middle of the dashboard.

Pilots probably have little issue with this. The digital age of avionics has seen the zillions of calculator-like buttons it took to enter a flight plan replaced with a few rotary knobs and selector buttons, or even a trackball mouse device. Of course, pilots enter the complexities of a flight plan while stopped on the ground usually, and in the air, they have a copilot, or they have an autopilot. At the very least, they don’t have to worry about the ground coming up too quickly while they do their heavy man-avionics interface stuff, though the National Transportation Safety Board reports about various air crashes are full of references to pilots who became distracted and flew right into the ground, or a mountain, or another aircraft.

Now, take the nice, fairly uncrowded skies and turn them into the Parkway West at rush hour on a hockey night in Pittsburgh when the Pirates are at PNC. Make it a Friday night and double the traffic. Now, do you have a few seconds to stare at the dashboard, manipulate a cursor and then flip through a couple of screens to change the temperature from 72 to 68 on the climate control? Without flying into terrain, so to speak?

That’s what all of this is about.

It wasn’t but a generation ago that power windows and air conditioning, the stuff of Cadillacs in my youth, became commonplace in even the lowliest economy car. Other than the smart Pure, I cannot name a car with roll-up windows anymore. And air conditioning and cruise control are nearly universal, too. These were luxury touches years ago.

So, I figure the stuff of luxury cars will be working its way down into the cars I can actually afford sometime soon. And, given the pace of technological advances, in a much shorter time than it took to get air conditioning and cruise control and power windows to be universal.

GM has touch-screen interfaces in Cadillacs called the CUE system. It’s awesome, like half an iPad on the dash, integrating a bunch of stuff that used to take buttons strewn all over the place to achieve. Even the Chevy Spark, the affordable little micro-car, has a version of the MyChevrolet touch-screen entertainment system in it. Chrysler, Kia, Hyundai, Honda, you name it, all have these systems available in some models, and the list of models that can stand your cellphone on its head and make it spit nav maps, music and more is expanding downmarket all the time.

So, what does NHTSA's non-binding non-rule potentially mean?

See Part 5 tomorrow.


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