Autonomous-car technology makes room for distracted drivers

With increased expectations from motorists to have the world at their fingertips while driving, designers say they're turning to autonomous driving technology to protect against distracted driving crashes.

'When you're on a highway, your car can drive itself and you don't need to be so focussed, so careful'

Smart Cone sensors can relay information to and from autonomous vehicles about potentially dangerous or complex circumstances up ahead, such as a pedestrian or cyclist approaching the intersection. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Automakers are celebrating the latest advances in autonomous driving technology, proclaiming the rapidly improving features to be the solution to distracted driving crashes.

With increased expectations from motorists to have the world at their fingertips while driving, automotive designers have simply accepted drivers will be distracted with toys and gadgets while on the road.

Accepting the fact drivers will be distracted may seem odd at first, but the time has come to do so, according to Parrish Hanna, global director of interaction and ergonomics at Ford Motor Company.

"Driver assistance technology really starts to lessen the danger and make it safer for you, almost knowing that you're going to be distracted and that you're going to be doing other things," he told CBC News. "The car will sense on its own what kind of physical state it's in."

Connecting vehicles

Researchers at the University of Windsor are working on connected-vehicle technology, which is another step toward self-driving vehicles and another tool that will allow drivers to be distracted, said professor Kemal Tepe, who specializes in wireless communication.

With a particular research focus on connected-vehicle technology, he boasts about how sensors in vehicles can already read how close a driver is to other vehicles or the side of the road. The sensors then force the car to correct speed and direction to prevent accidents.

That kind of technology allows drivers to be distracted without the fear of crashing, according to Tepe.

"While you are driving, you can do other activities," he said. "When you're on a highway, your car can drive itself and you don't need to be so focussed, so careful."

But connected-vehicle technology goes even further with the ultimate goal to eventually allow vehicles to share information, which will help anticipate traffic and road conditions well in advance.

"That's the direction we are going," Tepe said. "Autonomous driving will come."

Preventing distracted driving

The rush to introduce autonomous driving technology comes from the insatiable demand from motorists to have every tool available to help them navigate, entertain and even work while driving, according to Hanna.

The challenge, though, becomes balancing what drivers want and need while providing the safest experience possible.

Automakers meticulously track driver preferences to determine what gadgets they want in their vehicles, whether it be the ability to make phone calls, use navigation while driving or listening to music from multiple sources.

"Our goal is to offer what's most comfortable to the consumer in the safest manner," Hanna said. "If they're much more inclined to use touch screen or even physical buttons, we're going to accommodate them."

Last month, Chevy launched an ad campaign entitled "Mobile Office," touting its 4G LTE capability in the Silverado line of trucks.

"We talked to truck owners about what they'd want in a mobile office," the automaker says in a statement below the ad on its YouTube channel.

"The spot illustrates just one aspect of the connectivity Chevrolet offers our owners," said Paul Edwards, U.S. vice president of Chevrolet Marketing. "Based on usage rates for features such as OnStar, 4G LTE, and RemoteLink, Chevrolet's technologies deliver real-world benefits for our customers – and are a competitive advantage for our brand."

When it comes to touch-screen technology, designers also try to minimize the number of finger taps a driver needs to go through in order to complete a task, meaning they take their eyes off the road as little as possible. Hanna says the industry tends to aim for between eight and 10 taps, most companies try to keep them below four.

"We take a much more extreme point of view, where we want you to be able to do everything, or at least the things you do most frequently with just a few clicks," he said. "We want to keep everything on the surface and easy to find and very readable and where you'd expect it to be."