In-car Wi-Fi Likely to be Next Big Driving Distraction

Led by Chevrolet, the first major automaker to have Wi-Fi in its models, the Internet is shaping up as the next big driving distraction.


Chevrolet, the first major auto manufacturer to have Wi-Fi capability across its range of 2015 models, may be on the verge of offering the next big driving distraction, the Internet. Why would the automaker offer what may be the next big auto safety issue? Quite frankly, it represents an easy source of profit for Chevy. So, rather than recognizing that Wi-Fi may just be a feature that all motorists can easily do without, the General Motors division has forged ahead and is offering the capability in its 2015 models.

Internet Genie Out of Box

Like it or not, the Internet box has been opened and the genie is out. It’s not likely to return, either. Why won’t it return? It won’t return because many people already believe it vital that they have Internet connectivity wherever they go, even behind the wheel. Do they actually need it? It is highly unlikely, but the demand is there, apparently, or else the auto industry wouldn’t offer mobile Internet service.

So why, if the demand is there for Wi-Fi service, would there be concerns about it? After all, one might think, if a person has it installed in a new vehicle isn’t it the buyer’s concern alone? After all the buyer is the person who has paid, and continues to pay, for the Internet interface (hotspot) service, so shouldn’t the Wi-Fi be the sole concern of the customer and not of government, too?

This would be true if the world was a wonderland and every wish that we have had came true. In this world, there would be no fatal auto crashes, no car crashes with injuries and every motorist would be able to have the devices they want installed, no matter how harmful, so they would be able to use those devices whenever their hearts desired.

Well, the world isn’t a wonderland and motorists have to face the fact that there are many other concerns out there besides those with the desire to use the Internet from behind the steering wheel. Even if drivers were to promise that they would never use Internet connectivity while they were driving you know they will use it the moment they believe no one is looking.

Detecting Distraction

It is the same way with texting. Though the law in many jurisdictions bans texting – and reading the mail while driving – most drivers ignore it and continue their dangerous ways. You can easily determine if the motorists near you are texting or reading mail. To find the text-abusers, watch their movements. If you see motorists whose heads are tilting slightly and who seem to be reading something and quickly looking back at the road way, you can be sure they are reading texts or mail.

If the motorist or motorists seem to have something cradled at the bottom of their steering wheel and if you don’t see their hands in the normal driving position, you can be sure they are doing more than just reading. They are likely texting. The worst thing about these offenders, especially if the traffic is heavy, is that they are ignoring not only the law but also their fellow drivers. These drivers seem to think they are the only people on the road – or that they own the road and this is one of the privileges that attach to their “private” highways.

Of course, they don’t own the highway. Only the state or federal government can own a major expressway or slice of the interstates system, however, some drivers believe their rights supersede those of the state and federal governments so they will text. It is not only a selfish attitude but also a dangerous one as it can cost heavily in lives or in injuries.

Now, crank this up several several notches and you can see the impact it might have on motorist safety. Why is it necessary to crank it up several notches when referring to the Internet? When someone is texting it only requires brief snatches of concentration to read a post and then write a return. Internet use, on the other hand, requires near-total involvement because a motorist is not just reading and thumbing a keyboard.

Instead, the motorist is required to focus intensely on the Internet display device, usually a touchscreen on the dashboard, because of the heavy flow of information. By paying stricter attention to the display, the motorist focuses less on the matter at hand, driving. This just isn’t a safe situation. Automakers, by offering Internet capability in their products, are aiding this dangerous habit.

Distracting Commercials?

That said, the current version of the wired car can be seen as a new adventure in distracted driving. Let’s look at Chevrolet commercial making the rounds.

Although there are at least three versions of the commercial, one with kids, another with a couple and a third with four people riding in a crossover, there is only one message: “Gee, it’s great to have and use mobile Wi-Fi for just about anything.” Nowhere does the automaker acknowledge, even minimally, that Wi-Fi or the Internet, is a huge distraction in a car.

(Repeated studies by national safety, insurance and automotive groups continue to have the same result. Using any sort of interface device is the equivalent of driving under the influence. It is as if the user had drunk three or four alcoholic beverages in an hour. That many drinks would yield a blood alcohol level of .8. A motorist is severely impaired at that alcohol level.)

It’s true that in one of the commercials the Wi-Fi capability is used by rear-seat passengers. This might be a message, but if it is, it is hidden quite well as it is unspoken, unheard and unacknowledged. The only hint that it might be there, even subliminally, is the position of the Wi-Fi users. By having them sit and use the Internet in the rear, Chevrolet seems to be saying this is the only safe place to use it.

In the commercial, two sisters, one using s laptop and the other using a tablet, are working on their mother’s surprise birthday party with Dad. Dad, who is shown sans computer in the front seat, asks his daughters the status of the preparations for the party and they respond. As this is a surprise party, Mom is out of the car.

Rear-Seat Users Only

The key in this version of the commercial is that only the girls are using using the Internet link. As they both have headphones, one a normal set and the other a set of earbuds and they are both quietly working, without bothering Dad, there is no distraction.

Commercial number two illustrates a total distraction. The commercial shows a young couple cruising in a compact Chevy Cruze. As they motor along, the young man begins to blather on about his new magic toy, a smartphone. The young woman behind the wheel courteously drives on smiling slyly because her new compact car is equipped with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, another wireless interface.

Slowly, the young man looks up and sees that his smartphone has been linked to the Cruze’s Bluetooth system and it dawns on him that automobile is equipped with Wi-Fi. Crestfallen because he has been trumped in his hour of technological triumph, his face drops as he notes “Your car is equipped with Wi-Fi?” She nods and he sheepishly puts away his bragging and his smartphone and simply says “Cool!”

The commercial is a prime example of how not to use Wi-Fi. The driver should never actively interface with an automotive computer system because it take’s the motorist’s attention from the primary task at hand, safely driving the car.

Granted, the exchange but it was also likely distracting. Safety authorities have acknowledged in the past, all it takes is an instant of distraction to change a life. That particular commercial presents several potential moments that could have been life-changing.

Suggestions, Suggestions

Chevy could rework this commercial in a way that will demonstrate not only a concern for safety but also a concern for responsible Wi-Fi use. If the couple were shown in a parked vehicle as they were having their smartphone-Bluetooth conversation the automaker would have subliminally shown its concern for safety. But, no, the automaker hasn’t opted for responsibility. All the GM division is doing is trying to push its wares.

No one can fault a business for selling its wares and using whatever means available to do it. However, if one is using a method that encourages unsafe behavior then that business is being irresponsible and the business should rethink its strategy.

The final version of the commercial is the most irresponsible. It shows four people riding in a crossover (a small SUV). Of course, there is the subtle nod to safety by having the Internet users sitting in the rear, while the two guys up front are not using any computing devices at all. If the Internet users were to remain silent while using their devices everything would have been fine.

Instead, the automaker has the couple in the rear set up a continual one-way conversation with a constant barrage of irritating chatter about the movie that the front-seat guys wanted to see.

Because the couple kept their heads down and used earbuds, they were cut off from those up front who were also trying to tell them to stop their constant movie chatter. Their incessant nattering was more than distracting, as it appeared the front-seat duo was also upset by the rear-seat commandos. This type of situation is doubly dangerous.

Preventing Distraction

With the exception of the first commercial, the others point to the problems presented by the presence of Internet capability. Unless one is willing to work quietly while using the vehicle’s built-in Wi-Fi connection, the user is almost certain to bring distraction to the vehicle’s passenger compartment. Whether the user talks with the driver while connected or makes comments, not expecting answers, the result is still distraction for the driver.

In fact, the Internet connection represents a huge source of potential driver distraction. It is an issue that the industry will likely skirt until they have to address it directly as they don’t want to upset easy potential profits. Indeed, they will likely try to evade any responsibility until they have to acknowledge the problems or potential problems.

Since it is still early in the industry-wide roll-out of automotive Wi-Fi, automakers should work with Internet providers to provide a solid education for potential users. The education should point to the distraction potential of Wi-Fi and should show the cure. Of course, the cure is responsible use. Responsible use includes:

• Using the Internet only from a passenger position.
• Never directly interfacing with the internet if you are the driver and the vehicle is parked.
• Refraining from added commentary that might distract the driver.
• Never programming any devices once the vehicle is started.

Marc Stern has spent more than 40 years in and around cars. His work has included answering motorist questions, motor vehicle reviews and evaluation and writing dealers, consumer and industry news pieces. In addition, Mr. Stern has contributed to well-known automotive publications including Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, AutoWeek and Old Cars Weekly, among others.

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