By John Custer, Designer, Creative Development
Being a petrol-head means that I am all about the experience of driving. I love having grease under my nails and a hood over my head; the sound of a roaring engine is more important than a screaming guitar solo through the speakers; and an odd rattle or pressure reading needs to be addressed immediately—with my bare hands. My car is my passion. These are all things that make the driving experience what it is. I also believe that passion is what puts me in the top percentile of driving abilities and safety. I do not mean to belittle drivers that have a clean record—even the worst of drivers can be wreckless—but I do mean to call to attention people’s real passions and intent while they are behind the wheel and how innovations have potentially created dangerous driving conditions by hindering drivers and the experience of driving.
Innovations in automotive safety systems, until the 21st century, were mostly designed for situations that were considered uncontrollable or accidental. Seat belts keep you from flying through a windshield in a collision. Airbags protect your head from steering wheels, dashes, and glass windows. Anti-lock breaks shorten braking distances and give the driver more control during extreme braking. All of these advances make for a safer driver and driving experience while still demanding and requiring the utmost attention from the operator behind the wheel.
However, the newest and greatest 21st century advancements in car safety have lessened the need for a driver’s full attention. New innovations have taken the experience of driving from the motorist and given it to the car. For example, cars can now detect when you are swerving, falling asleep, or need a cup of coffee instead of you having to know so. They can tell you that there is a car in your blind spot instead of requiring you to physically check your surroundings. Your car can even stop itself when a vehicle in front of you has clearly stopped but you are busy texting your dinner plans to the gang. Undoubtedly these new safety assistant systems will save lives, money, and property, just as any safety equipment on an automobile should. But at what exact cost do these systems really protect us? Do these new innovations in the automotive world make a car safer or a driver dumber? At what point does a wreck become the cars fault and not the driver’s fault?
When the experience of driving is taken away from the driver, there is no longer a need to be a part of that experience. Watching for obstacles, treacherous situations, and unsafe conditions is not a priority: the driver’s full attention is no longer needed to complete a driving task. This means that innovation has failed the auto safety industry, and inventors have unknowingly created dangerous roads with their wishful and temporarily solutions for removing distractions from the car.
Innovation in automotive safety needs to take a few steps back, revisit the drawing board, and try to address the issue they started with—distractions in the car—instead of placing a band-aid over a gash that will hurt when ripped off. Systems that tell people they need to pay attention when they are distracted are great and show where the industry has come from since the Model T. But the much more serious question and problem the auto industry must now face is how to remove the distractions from the automobile altogether and create a lively driving experience on the road, in which people will interact with and actually pay attention again.
Note: I have no issue with Mercedes-Benz. I am in fact a dear fan of the automaker. I only pick on them for argumentative sake of the innovations that Mercedes-Benz has developed for the automotive masses.