Driving Into the Future

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably noticed a quickly emerging trend in new car technologies: park assist, self driving cars, eye level projection screens, etc. This is the first in a series of posts looking at how these new innovations will impact how we drive into the future.

Part One: Driving Distracted


I’ll admit, this video impressed me. Sleek, fast, and confident, it makes an impact. But when we look critically at the core of what distracted driving means, the illusion starts to become a bit more clear.

Let’s start by looking at the logic underlying the new technologies connecting our cars and phones. The current social norm is that people use their phones while driving. Texting has become less acceptable, but we still do it, and talking while driving is still widespread and legal in most states.

Secondly, the way most of us use our phone is by physically looking down at it, thus taking our eyes off the road. Common perception is that the physical distraction of looking down causes the danger of distracted driving. So if we can have a way to use phones without taking our eyes off the road,  we can improve driver safety. This is the argument put forth by companies marketing these products. However, many experts in driving safety think that these arguments are based on faulty claims.

All Seeing is Not Created Equal
If you read any popular psychological theories, you will notice the common theme that as humans, we strongly overestimate our cognitive abilities. Our brains make us think that we notice everything that happens in front of us, and that we have a great ability to multitask. However, the reality is in fact opposite; we are poor multitaskers and commonly miss things that happen right before our eyes.

These are the ideas underlying the concept of cognitive distraction, which is essentially how even though our eyes may be physically on the road, if our minds are not focused on driving we will miss things even if they may be in our visual field. Studies have shown (based on the work of Dr. Paul Atchley) that cognitive distraction is just about as dangerous as physical distraction (i.e. looking down).

If this is true, then hands free or screen projection technologies are no safer than normal phone use, as they will lead to equally dangerous distraction. I may take this a bit further and say that they have the potential to be more dangerous, as they give a strong illusion of safety, tricking our minds into thinking we aren’t distracted at all.

Social Norms
We’ve all felt that familiar pull, that undeniable urge to take just one quick look at our phone to see who the text is from, besides I don’t see any other cars on the road and it will be quick and I’m a safe driver anyways so this is ok  and it might be important. Yea, we all rationalize it, don’t deny. But why is the urge so strong that we disregard what we know about safety to fulfill it. Some would say because we can’t handle being alone.


Or maybe it’s the fear of missing out, that if I don’t read this text right now some great chance at success will be unfulfilled, an opportunity gone forever. Whatever the reason is, it doesn’t seem rational. There seems to be no good reason for this widely accepted social norm.

So, the question that naturally follows is, why not change it? Public perception does seem to be shifting a bit. Public service ads are pretty much on point with the “it can wait” theme. This is only a partial answer though, because we rationally know it can and should wait, but if we aren’t more intentional about locking the phone away, that urge often gets the best of us.  And if we blindly accept the new “safe” technologies and don’t look more critically, we’ll continue to perpetuate the illusion.


Communication Breakdown: The Text Message

If you’ve grown up in the era of cell phones, texting, and emoticons, the following scenario is likely very familiar:

(Set scene) Group of guys/girls hanging out.  One [guy/girl] is romantically interested in person of opposite sex, wants to text said person.  Asks group what to send in text message.  Group discusses word choice, smiley faces, and level of flirtatiousness in message.  After 5 minutes, it is agreed upon to send “Hi :)”   (End scene).

First off, don’t worry, this isn’t a post about dating in the 21st century, I’m way too out of date to do that.  For example, I first learned what emojis were this morning, and I still don’t really grasp the concept.  Rather the above scene will be used to illustrate some important points about how modern methods of communication affect us.  At some point in time, most of us have been a part of such a scene, either on the sending or receiving end.  Texting has become a fairly standard part of the progression of modern relationships.  I don’t find the trivial details of texting and relationships to be too interesting, but we can learn a lot when we dive into why we are so drawn towards texting.

So, why are we so inclined to send text messages?  To list a few of their merits, they are fast, easy, fairly inconspicous, and very convenient.  Specifically though, why do we choose to text in the situation described above, when you are interested in a guy/girl?  It’s certainly not faster or more convenient, as a quick call to say “would you like to go to dinner” would be twenty times faster and require less effort than navigating the intricacies of texting.

The reason we are so drawn to texting is because it eliminates risk.  When we call someone up, a direct connection is made with that person, which puts us at risk.  At risk for rejection, embarrassment, failure, or even success. Texting allows us to hide behind the glass walls of an LCD touch screen, providing a safe barrier between us and the other person.  You don’t have to have that gut-check moment right before asking the girl out and waiting for her to reply yes or no while you hold your breath for what seems like an eternity but is really 2 seconds; instead you just type, tap send, and wait.

I like to use dating as an easy example, but this holds true for any communication.  If you don’t want to talk to your parents about what’s really going on in your life, you can just text them that you’re ok.  If you don’t want to confront a friend about some problem, just hash it out over an hour long texting conversation.   In any relationship we can avoid risk by using indirect methods of communication (texting, email) instead of on the phone or face to face.

Pause here: I’ve probably run into a bit of dissention with you, the reader.  You validly want to point out that the way we communicate has constantly been changing over time.  First we grunted at each other, then we developed words, then wrote those words down on stone and pieces of bark, then talked through a nationwide system of wires.  Now we send signals up to a satellite, back down, and into a little black device.  What difference does it make, you say?  So now we text instead of calling or writing letters, it’s just part of the natural continuous progression.  What we say hasn’t changed, just the means we use to say it.

Which is a good argument. However, the key point here is that how we communicate fundamentally affects the nature of our relationship with that person.  Asking someone out, calling an old relative you haven’t talked to in years, or talking over an important problem with a friend face to face are all hard, and as we saw earlier, involve risk. But this risk, this leap of faith across the boundary between you and the Other that puts your neck on the line, is what creates the foundation of the relationship.  By opening up and exposing yourself and your vulnerabilities to the other, you inherently make the focus of the relationship about that person, not yourself.  And a true relationship is one in which you desire for the good of the other person as much or more as for yourself.

Contrast this with texting. When we text, we avoid risk and don’t truly extend ourselves to the other person. This causes us to focus the relationship inwardly on ourselves: what should I send to make her come to the party with me tonight? what can I say to make her not be mad at me any more? what do I need to say to get my parents off my back? You get the point.  The absence of risk on my part makes me unconsciously focus on what I can get out of the relationship instead of what can I give.

This is not meant to be a full fledged attack on modern communication. In some, if not most cases, texting likely does no harm. But as modern relationships and communication have undoubtedly changed, it’s something may have more impact than it seems. If you think about it a bit and look at how your own experiences have played out, you might find a bit of truth in it.