29
Feb
12

Driven to distraction

By now you’ve probably heard about Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s interview with DC’s WTOP radio station, in which he confesses to a bit of self-righteous road rage.  I’m sorry, to a bit of dabbling in the behavioral-economics concept of nudging:

I drive around on the weekends in Washington… What I’ve been doing is kind of honking at somebody if I see him on a cellphone.

One wonders how LaHood manages to “kind of” honk.  Maybe this is one of the superpowers that unelected bureaucrats get when they’re appointed to meddlesome offices.

Anyway, this story’s been all over the internet — or at least my corner thereof — but I haven’t seen anyone bring in the obvious Old Meme yet.  So I gotta do it:

Meanwhile, LaHood and company are mandating backup cameras on all new-production American cars starting in 2014.  This doesn’t particularly move my giveashitometer: DOT has plenty of meddlesome regulations already, and this one’s pretty benign by most standards.  Except, well….

I basically like rear-facing cameras.  They’re a handy technology, tested at Le Mans, and since manufacturers inevitably insist on raising belt lines and otherwise putting big opaque slabs in the middle of rear windows they seem like a step forward.  As car tech goes, they don’t rate as high as ABS or active differentials or forced induction (or — oh godhybrid turbos) but they’re above satellite radio and heated seats.  But the problem with rear-facing cameras is that they’re usually integrated into centre-console touchscreens, and centre-console touchscreens are tools of Satan.

It’s pretty easy to see why.  Suppose you’re a Responsible Driver, not chatting on your cellphone or otherwise doing something to make Ray LaHood cry.  You come across some exciting-looking Weather in the near distance, and decide to flip the radio over to the local traffic/weather station.  On a car with a standard form factor from ten years ago, you reach your right arm over, feel around for the smaller knob on the left, find the button directly to its right (say), and hit “scan” until you come across a weather report or a low-budget mattress store advertisement.  Eyes stay on the road the whole time.

On a car with a touchscreen centre console, you have to look over to see what state the console’s in, then look further to locate the “entertainment controls” widget.  Pound that with your index finger.  Look back up, veer wildly around the asshat in the Aztek who just cut into your lane, then look back down and realize you hit “climate controls” by mistake.  Keep looking around the touchscreen and hitting “buttons” that give you no tactile feedback.  See the problem?

It would be a mistake to suggest that centre-console touchscreens are a bad idea, though.  They are in fact a very good idea — but not for the reasons you’d expect.  Touchscreens are not meant to be used while driving.  They’re meant to be used by salescritters and prospective buyers on the dealer’s lot, to evoke a giddy “that’s so cool!” response and sell cars.  And I suspect backup cameras fit the same niche.

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