Asked at today’s Ford GT innovation forum in Detroit if he’s frustrated by the increase of handheld mobile phone usage in cars, HMI director Jeff Greenberg countered that “nobody should be frustrated by the fact that people want to bring their digital lives into their vehicles".
"They just do," Greenberg said. "It has become part of our lives. Our job is to figure out how to make that more compatible with driving.”
He said there was little point scolding people and telling them they couldn't be connected to their phones while driving.
“People are motivated to do this because they have real and perceived needs, it isn’t going to go away. The question is, how do we make those things more compatible with driving so they're not endangering yourself or others?”
Despite the reality of the situation, which sees mobile phone usage in vehicles on the rise across the developed world, Greenberg says it fails to materialise in terms of increased crashes that are so often associated with the activity.
“If you look at a lot of stories in the media you would believe that there is an epidemic of crashes on the road related to driving distraction. In fact if you look at the data in the US and most of the developed world, crash rates, not just fatalities, have been declining or [have remained] stable for well over a decade, and over that same period of time the number of cellular subscriptions has increased exponentially.
"So the epidemic of crashes that we might expect, we don’t really see reflected in the data, which has really puzzled a lot of researchers.”
According to Greenberg the numerous laboratory experiments that show distracted drivers being far more likely to cause an accident than those focusing on the road are not reflective of real world conditions as drivers generally understand when it’s safe to use a handheld mobile phone while driving.
“We can do lab experiments and show that if you’re doing certain things with your electronics that maybe you will react more slowly, and a lot of lab researchers have taken that lab data and made dire predications of what will happen on the road.
“[Conversely] people are actually really good judges of when they have spare capacity, this is why we don’t see this increase in crashes [from increased mobile phone usage].”
Nonetheless, Greenberg admits that “there are tragic traffic accidents when people make mistakes about their capacity”.
Ford’s global head of HMI, Parrish Hanna, went a step further, suggesting that the new generation of tech savvy drivers viewed mobile phone usage as a necessary part of daily life, noting an experiment that engaged teenage drivers to drive a car for less than 10 kilometres without texting in exchange for money, with participants being unable to do so without even realising.
"[There’s] no cognitive reflection [about smartphone usage in cars], it's an extension of me, it comes and goes with me, it’s me,” Hanna said.
The issue of mobile phone usage in cars has been dealt with in many countries with hefty fines but the US still lacks the unified zero-tolerance stance on handheld mobile phone usage in vehicles enacted in Australia. For example, in Florida you can use your mobile phone while operating a car as long as the sound goes through only one ear, while in California it is banned completely.
Greenberg's assertions are disputed by the US National Safety Council, which says texting while driving is the cause of nearly 25 per cent of all car accidents, while a person undertaking the activity is six times more likely to cause an accident than one driving while intoxicated.