Opinion: 'Smart' cars are stupid

Credit: Stewart Wolpin

My idea of distracted driving is someone talking to me. And last week, I took the most dangerously distracted drive of my life (and you're reading about a teetotaler who was always the designated driver), in a spanking new 2014 Cadillac XTS VSport, accompanied by a chatty fellow reporter and an equally chatty GM PR rep.

But my passengers' chattiness combined with my steady stream of reporter questions and the torrential rain wasn't nearly as distracting as the car's CUE (Cadillac User Experience) "smart" infotainment gadgetry.

Even though I don't own a car (only around 15 percent of New Yorkers do), I do like to drive. Just like Raymond Babbit in Rain Man, I'm an excellent driver. Well, maybe not just like Raymond Babbit (I rarely count toothpicks). I drive no more than 6-7 mph over the speed limit except to pass, I never pass on the right, I stay to the right (or center) except when passing, I try to keep one car length between me and the car in front of me for every 10 mph I'm traveling, I try to stay out of people's blind spots and try to keep people out of mine, and despite Satchel Paige's advice, I constantly check my mirrors to see who may be gaining on me.

And I set up my music before putting the vehicle into drive.

Why am I so anal retentive behind the wheel? According to the CDC, "unintentional injury" (of which "unintentional motor vehicle traffic" is the leading component) was the fifth highest killer of all Americans in 2010, and the only non-disease in the top 10 other than suicide.

But while I can keep myself relatively undistracted, I can't count on any of you "smart" car enthusiasts to be nearly as attentive.

'Smart' Cars Are Smarter Than We Are

The smooth-riding and luxurious Cadillac that GM let me drive from Chelsea to Darien, Connecticut (and back) includes CUE, which encompasses a 7-inch touchscreen, Bluetooth connectivity for music syncing with a smartphone and chatting, Sirius XM satellite radio, OnStar, GPS navigation with integrated Doppler weather, Pandora streaming radio, and even "Natural Voice Recognition" voice control.

This array of electronics and features is not news. At CES earlier this year, many leading car makers embraced in-car distractions (er, I mean electronics), often with the capability of running apps from connected smartphones, including Chevy's MyLink, there's Ford's SYNC, Chrysler's Uconnect Access, Hyundai's Blue Link, Kia's UVO, Audi's Connect, Lexus' Enform App Suite, a wide variety of third-party after-market car entertainment/navigation systems, and the industry standard MirrorLink protocol.

These smart systems may be smarter than we are — even they know that using them may not be a good idea.

Take, for example, this brilliant BringGo GPS navigation app caveat:


To help avoid a crash in which you or others could be injured or killed: Always concentrate on your driving first by keeping your eyes and mind on the road, and your hands on wheel.

Well, maybe not so smart. Since this missive is displayed on the dashboard screen, you need to concentrate on reading about how you should concentrate on driving.

Worse, in order to get to this warning in the first place, you have to have tap-tap-tapped through several distracting screens, if you haven't already wrapped your car around a utility pole in the meantime.

You Talkin' To Me?

I consider myself fairly adept at touchscreen dynamics, but I ended up with extra butterflies in my stomach from futzing with the Caddy's controls while attempting to navigate New York City's chaotic, life-threatening highways and byways at 60 mph.

Knowing that futzing can be deadly, car makers have been installing voice command systems so you can keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel while telling the car what music to play, who to call, or what address you want to navigate to.

Except, the car voice command systems I've used, including the one in the Caddy, aren't exactly KITT from "Knight Rider." They require precise commands and enunciation, then you have to patiently wait a few seconds for the system to respond — usually incorrectly, requiring a repeat (I love wondering if the car can hear me now). Just talking to your car requires attention diverted from driving duties.

As such, perfecting voice commands for the car instead of smartphones could actually be life-saving (although smartphones have created a generation of distracted walkers).

Call Me Maybe

GM tells me it's tinkering with a self-driving car, a la Google. But until a car is smart enough to drive itself, or all car conversation can be as effectively controlling as with KITT, all of these so-called "smart" screen-based app/navigation/music operations ought to be locked, at least to the driver, while the car is in motion. Nothing except steering wheel operations — answer Bluetooth call, call/music volume up/down/pause/mute, music skip/radio seek on the steering wheel — should be available, period.

And allowing even these steering wheel functions would be merely a concession to the reality of human driving behavior.

Restricting "smart" functions while driving isn't another case of the nanny state run amok — your distracted driving could kill me. And there's nothing smart about putting your or my life at risk to run Pandora.

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