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Are drivers ready for high-tech onslaught?

Next year will be a model year of change as high-tech features spread from luxury models to entire lineups. But how much tech is too much? Images: Car tech for the masses

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
7 min read
Self-parking, auto-braking, always-connected cars will soon be the norm as James Bond-like high-tech gear trickles down from luxury models to budget rides in 2008.

On tap from BMW, Mercedes, GM, Lexus and others are a wide range of high-tech navigation systems, parking assistance features, touch-screen displays, Bluetooth communications and other developments, as human control of mundane--and not-so mundane--systems is being rapidly ceded to automation.

But without one's own personal Q to explain how each gadget works, how much new tech is too much for the average consumer to handle?

"A lot of it is beneficial...But it can be confusing and in the automobile, that's a safety threat," said Don Norman, professor at Northwestern University, author of The Design of Future Things and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, a company that consults with major manufacturers on the design of everything from Web sites to car computers.

Norman and others say automakers have their work cut out for them in teaching drivers how to best use these new tools. And then there's the user interface: Forget about familiar personal computer-like displays. Many advanced systems being placed in cars require no-peek coordination.

The more difficult task might be convincing people that a computer can read a map, place phone calls, apply brakes, mind the blind spot, stay in the right lane and maintain a safe driving distance from the next car better than the average driver.

Car tech

It's a change that will affect the entire driving world.

"Lots of people, including myself, used to say people shouldn't adapt to tech, tech should adapt to people. But now I look at it and say, 'We are making tech to be used by everyone across the world. The stove is the same in all cultures despite the fact that the cooking is different," said Norman.

Regardless of consumer trepidation, the computerized car has arrived not only for behind-the-scenes mechanics, but for driver interaction as well. As one CNET News.com reader put it: "This'll certainly give new meanings to 'blue screen of death' and your computer 'crashing."

Perhaps the best indication that the car-as-computer has "arrived" is GM's CEO Rick Wagoner being added as a keynote speaker for January's 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show alongside technology leaders like Bill Gates, Intel's Paul Otelleni and Panasonic's Toshihiro Sakamoto.

In a Telematics Research Group review (PDF) of 2008 car models, 70 percent have voice-activated Bluetooth communication capability and 80 percent offer navigation systems as either options or standard equipment.

"Any safety tech based on sensors will also become very popular...They are relatively inexpensive for the OEM to implement since the components have come down way low in price. And they also have value for the customer," said Phil Magney, co-founder and principal analyst of Telematics Research Group.

It's amazing how much of this is designed by engineers who have no real understanding of the way average, everyday people behave.
--Don Norman,
design expert

Drivers can expect to see things like parking assistance, blind spot detection, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control trickle down to non-luxury models very soon, said Magney.

Already, 60 percent of 2008 models offer a parking assistance feature with audible warnings, and about a third offer camera-based versions that include a live video feed to a dashboard screen to give drivers a better view of nearby objects.

Other features could be harder for drivers to master. Norman, in his book, relates a story about a driver who's forgotten that his car is in adaptive cruise control, which allows a car to self-regulate speed and maintain a safe distance from the next car. After sitting in traffic for some time, the driver exits from the highway. The car, sensing there is no longer traffic immediately in front of it, speeds up to highway speed on the curvy exit ramp forcing the driver to slam on his brakes.

"It's amazing how much of this is designed by engineers who have no real understanding of the way average, everyday people behave. If you talk to the people who deploy these cars, they say it's meant to assist, not be relied on (for preventing accidents). The drivers are not going to understand that distinction," said Norman.

Thomas Plucinsky, BMW product and technology communications manager, disagrees with Norman's assertion that it's the automakers' job to anticipate misuse of a feature like adaptive cruise control.

"Our new adaptive cruise control...(is) really meant as an aid on the highway. Our intention is not to drive the car for the driver. It remains the driver's responsibility to keep their eyes on the road and keep control of the car," he said.

BMW's opinion is significant as it is a leader in high-tech car innovation and will likely drive new features into the market. The Telematics Research Group named BMW the maker of "the most technologically advanced vehicle in the world" based on the company's 2008 5-series vehicles.

BMW also knows the pain of being on the bleeding edge of new technology. It's iDrive system, which was introduced for the 2002 BMW 7-series, works similarly to an iPod click wheel in that a mechanical knob is used to maneuver around a dashboard-mounted LCD screen to control things like air conditioning and heating, navigation systems, communications and other features.

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.