Rishi Kannan, '23
Mercedes-Benz recently debuted its new EQS electric vehicle, touting a fifty-six-inch screen running from end to end on the dashboard. You heard me right. The TV in your living room is probably smaller than the enormity of a screen in this car. Cadillac also has something similar in their flagship SUV, the Escalade; in front of the driver stands a thirty-eight-inch overlapping center display. Even Jeep, the most stereotypically utilitarian car brand, announced its newest family SUV, the Grand Wagoneer, to have eight individual screens, adding up to a total of seventy-two inches of screen. The “screen overkill” doesn’t stop there, as many car manufacturers are following suit, jam-packing the limited space of a car with screen after screen.
Car technology has boomed over the past decade, with a plethora of safety features— including automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and pedestrian detection systems—saving countless lives every day. But a darker side comes with this rapid innovation.
Around 9% of all accidents come as a result of distracted driving. As the act of driving a car becomes simpler and simpler, the possibilities of dangerously multitasking increases dramatically. Only a few decades ago, the majority of cars on the road were stick-shift, meaning one hand would always hold the shifter, the other hand would grip the steering wheel, and both feet would navigate three pedals on the ground. There wasn’t really a chance to be distracted. Now, there are two pedals in the footwell, and in some electric cars, you only need to use one because of regenerative braking. The steering wheel becomes irrelevant when the car steers for you while your hands float at the eight and four marks. The car’s radar senses when it needs to stop before an imminent collision, and before your foot even thinks to press the brake. All the while, the car makes sure that you feel cozy enough with the correct color of ambient lighting and your favorite music pumping through the four thousand dollar speaker system—a dangerous combination that relaxes you, and in turn, lowers your attention.
Let’s go back to those screens I talked about before. Marshall Doney, president and CEO of AAA, says that even though “drivers want technology that is safe and easy to use, … many of the features added to infotainment systems today have resulted in overly complex and sometimes frustrating user experiences for drivers.” That frustration and subsequent cognitive demand “increases the potential for distracted driving.” Do you really think a fifty-six-inch screen will help with creating a simpler environment in your car’s interior? To access climate controls, why press a simple button when you can go through deep menus of options that might put you at risk? Why not unsuccessfully change the radio stations on a screen that doesn’t work half the time?
As opposed to tactile buttons and knobs, screens restrict the driver’s sense of touch and encourage the driver to take their attention off of the road. “We have made what were relatively simple tasks really complex,” cognitive and neural scientist David Strayer says after conducting a study at the University of Utah.
I don’t mean to sound like a Luddite, but the problem of technology in cars sparks many questions on humanity’s approach to easing work. What happens when technology stops working? If drivers are used to letting the car figure out its own problems, they have shifted the psychological responsibility to the vehicle, but they will still experience the physical and legal troubles in the event of an accident. Furthermore, the driver will not be confident in his or her driving abilities without the help of the car’s systems. Will drivers know how to navigate highways safely? Will they know how to switch lanes? Will they know how to check over their shoulder for merging traffic? Will they know how to press the brake pedal in time in icy weather? As a reader base of mostly teenagers who are soon to obtain/have only recently obtained a drivers’ license, these are serious questions worth considering when going out onto the road.
But the bad news about new technology in cars doesn’t stop with safety. Car features are also just another way for auto-manufacturers to win over their competition. Going back to the screens, car makers are under the philosophy that the bigger the screen, the better the sales. But along with screens come other gimmicks the manufacturers produce. For example, new minivans are offering a “Passenger Talk” feature, where the driver can send a voice message through the car’s speakers to reach the passengers three feet away. Doesn’t sound like a good use of money, does it? BMW came out with a gesture control feature, where you can twirl your hand in the air to increase the radio volume. Even wireless charging—why pay extra for one company’s car over another just so you don’t have to plug in your phone with a wire? The gimmicks might be fine if they didn’t have any negative consequences, but along with the semiconductor shortage, they jack up a car’s price. The average price of a car today is at an all time high of 45,000 dollars, 50% more than the average price of around 30,000 dollars in 2010.
My advice is this. Trust your abilities, without leaning on the car’s features as a crutch. There’s so much to enjoy about driving even without the screens. If you master it, I’m sure you can live with watching TV at home instead of on the dash.
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