The never-ending tension between the desire to give consumers more choices of in-car gizmos and the need to halt the advance of distracted driving took another confused twist this week, as Onstar announced that it is testing new features that could allow drivers to listen to text messages and update their Facebook status from behind the wheel. According to the DetN, the technology would read incoming text messages or a Facebook news feed to the driver, and could even allow the driver to update their own Facebook status verbally. Needless to say, GM and Onstar are hyping the updates as ways to keep up with Ford’s SYNC on the entertainment front, and because the features are all hands-free, they’re safe… right?
Of course not. Hands-free technology has yet to be proven to be safer than using a handheld cell phone in the car. Which, until further studies are done, essentially means that hands-free cellular communication is about as safe as driving after a few drinks. Not that Onstar is bringing it up, telling the press that
OnStar has always operated on the premise that while the possibilities of technological innovation are endless, the company will not implement a new service simply because it’s technically feasible, it has to be the right thing to do for the customer. All of our technologies are rigorously evaluated prior to launch.
Of course “doing the right thing for the consumer” isn’t always easy to quantify. Should GM and Onstar indulge the narcissistic tendencies of the Facebook addicted by allowing them to update their status while taking their life into their hands on the road, or does “doing the right thing” imply taking a bit more responsibility? After all, GM admits that the use rate for Bluetooth sync capability is still quite low, suggesting that demand for these tech toys isn’t even all that high.
An analysis of random, anonymous data collected from thousands of vehicles indicates only 45 percent of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac owners are pairing their cellular phones to a vehicle’s Bluetooth system, raising concerns that customers are unaware of the feature in their vehicle or believe connecting to be too difficult a process.
Or, subscribers might (rightly) understand that hands-free cell phone use while driving is dangerous and refuse to sync their phones. But that perspective doesn’t exactly validate Onstar’s new entertainment-focused direction, so it must not be the case. Isn’t that right, Onstar VP Chris Preuss?
There’s no question that cellular device use in the vehicle is and will continue to be one of the biggest safety challenges facing society. Technology will play a key role in mitigating this impact, but we cannot over-assume engagement just because we provide the capability. This education and awareness campaign is designed to encourage use of hands-free technology because we take driver distraction and safety very seriously.
Sorry, wrong answer. As tough as it is to fathom for someone in the driver distraction business, the only way to keep drivers truly safe is to tell them not to talk on the phone, update their Facebook status or otherwise distract themselves while driving. Period. But instead of sending that message, GM is setting up a new website to educate Onstar subscribers about just how easy it is to sync their phones to their cars. Because people should be encouraged to use communication technology they don’t understand while driving several tons of metal at high speeds.