August 28, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Are drivers ready for high-tech onslaught?
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The impetus behind the iDrive--now on all BMW 7-, 5- and 3-series cars--is to provide drivers with one control to direct a multitude of functions while barely taking their eyes off the road. The screen is even placed high on the center dash so when drivers must glance at it, the road is still within their peripheral vision, according to Plucinsky.
Initially, however, iDrive was roundly criticized as being too hard to learn and a distraction for drivers, spawning derisive nicknames like "iCrash". "Look at BMW with the iDrive. It was crazy, just crazy. Disaster. You could customize everything. You could customize up to something like 700 variables," said Norman.
But BMW stood by iDrive, refining it and redesigning the interface in 2005. "Because we were the pioneer, we came out with something that was a little too complicated for the first customer it was introduced to," said Plucinsky.
BMW's pain has paved the way for other makers to introduce further automation into their lineups. Volkswagen, for instance, sees car computer controls evolving in a different direction.
"You're going to have a conversation with your vehicle, like you would with a person. The last thing you want to do is drive and push a bunch of buttons. If you can manage--not through voice commands and keywords, but through natural speech--that will be the most effective way to manage the information that's in your vehicle," said Frank Weith, technical strategy manager for Volkswagen of America
"You have voice activation now and that will improve. As that becomes more robust, I think you'll see more OEMs integrating that into their HMIs (human-machine interfaces)," he said.
Weith also sees communication technology as playing a larger role in expanding what a car can offer.
For example, hands-free Bluetooth cell phone connectivity is not just a reaction to cell phone safety laws bound to be passed at the state level, said Weith. They are a first step toward cars communicating with the outside world in real time.
For drivers to use navigation systems beyond the occasional rental car, carmakers are going to have to offer something more than static maps and directions. Real-time traffic info could be the deciding factor in choosing one route over another, as well as a selling point for navigation data packages, said Weith.
"Long term is where every car sends a signal and you now have a dynamic organization that's giving traffic information as it happens. But that's down the road...2013 or 2015," he said.
Still, the best technology won't be adopted unless drivers accept new features in the way they drive, said Plucinsky, Weith and Norman.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, one potential danger may come not in how drivers control these new high-tech features or how they are fed information, but in the psychological effect of a gadget's success. As car safety devices successfully prevent accidents, people may begin to think they don't need them and shut them off because they think they're a nuisance. Norman compares it to an organ transplant patient who feels completely healthy and, therefore, stops taking his medicine.
Nissan recently introduced a concept car that uplifts the gas pedal as an initial warning then automatically brakes for the driver if she begins to lift her foot off the gas as part of a collision warning system.
"Your car brakes suddenly...if the car doesn't crash, but causes internal damage you'll think, yeah, there was some danger, but you (the car) overreacted," said Norman.
Automakers disagree on the value of such a feature. "We want the driver to be involved with the driving. We would not introduce a system to self brake. The best way to avoid an accident is not just to brake, but to steer around the obstacle," said BMW's Plucinsky.
"We don't want cars to drive themselves. That is the antithesis of BMW. For us, the tech should enhance the driving experience," said Plucinsky.
Volkswagen seems to agree.
"You have to figure out how to balance the technology from the distractions. It boils down to cost to the consumer. You don't want to burden them with an unwieldy high-costing system, whether they will be smart devices or dumb devices that are fed info," said VW's Weith.
Whether driving or partially driving, there's one thing all drivers will have to adapt to as cars become more automated, said Norman.
"If the car is in control, it will not break the traffic laws or...speed limits. And you will have an angry driver trying to say, 'But, I'm in a rush. I need to get there,'" he said.
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