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

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.

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 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.

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