The dangers of reading behind the wheel

Autonomous connected cars offer plenty of new opportunities to engage consumers with content. But, as Toby Waller suggests, we also need restraint

There's a reason why I love long road trips. In an age of constantly buzzing messages and the need to stay continually connected and updated, the car – like airplanes and trains – is a place where smart devices lose their bond with the outside world. Driving doesn't just give you the freedom to explore more of the world; it frees you from the distractions, too.

Behind the wheel, you get time to think about other things, have a conversation with your fellow passengers, or simply watch the scenery fly by. When it comes to the age of the autonomous car, though – and it's coming faster than you think – will this still be the case?

One of the promises of autonomous cars – alongside improved safety and ease-of-use – is the ability to give time back to the driver. But, while I like the idea of catching up on my reading and TV viewing while on the move, there's a risk that manufacturers, service providers and marketeers could see the car as the next content-hungry connected smart device – and that has ramifications, good and bad.

Dial 9 to go faster

Already, many cars are sold as if they're smartphones or tablets on wheels. Advanced sat-nav and infotainment options, allied to 4G connections, have gone far beyond the basics of delivering journey-relevant information – such as real-time traffic data, or local points of interest – or letting you make hands-free phone calls.

The arrival of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto means that phones are truly integrated into your car, and you can now hear and send text messages, have news feeds read out to you, or interact with your calendars, thanks to hands-free voice activation or hand gestures. 

Cars are even being fitted with cameras, and not just for capturing accidents. Jaguar is promoting its ability to fit a Go-Pro to the F-Type as a track day tool, letting you record video of your circuit-based exploits before combining it with telemetry from your car. Citroen is heavily advertising the in-car camera on its C3 as a social tool.

Flirting on the move

One of this year's better April Fool's gags – from Honda – was an in-car dating app. Swipe your windscreen wipers right to like, swipe left to say no. In an age of autonomous cars connected by the cloud, it sounds logistically and technologically feasible. Like most good satire, it’s also starting to feel like a warning of an impending future, rather than an amusing implausibility.

Don't get me wrong. More in-car information is a big step forward from the days when a CD player was the main selling point of an upmarket car. However, we’re still at the acceptable thin edge of what could become a very thick wedge.

It's only a matter of time before someone realises this autonomous convenience and connectivity can be heavily monetised, and our cars become as distracting and demanding on our time as other smart devices, with a flood of unwanted features and content.

Location- and proximity-based push advertising can already be used to send relevant local information to your smartphone. How long will it be before this happens with your car? A nearby restaurant is having a promotion. You may be tired; the Manchester Hilton should be your next stop. Here’s the price of petrol (or electric charging) at your next service station, compared with the two beyond that.

How long before these selected chunks of information, which are useful in isolation, become a sea of unwanted – and unread – spam?

Keep possessions (and data) out of view

There are other dangers with this flood of car-focused content. Privacy and security of data and devices are two of the biggest talking points of the modern age, and as cars get increasingly sophisticated they, too, will fall under this umbrella. There are already stories about how cars can be hacked and stopped on the move, while Tesla – like fellow Silicon Valley disruptors, Apple and Facebook – is finding itself at the heart of the debate about the availability and privacy of its customer data

Progress is good. But too much progress – too fast, and too unconsidered – can turn interesting technological ideas into ones that ultimately end up disruptive, for all the wrong reasons. 

Legislation is only now catching up with the dangers of mobile phone usage in cars, while media attention on the recent spate of road accidents with autonomous test cars – often overly dramatised for effect – is starting to re-ignite the discussion about how ready we are to accept such an advanced level of hands-free technology.

Learning from past accidents

The consequences – good, and bad – of a free and unfettered internet and smart devices on privacy, decency, security and quality of life is driving plenty of debate.

As technology gradually changes the nature of the car into a wi-fi connected lounge on wheels, the opportunity – and challenge – for manufacturers, service providers, marketeers and content creators is not just the value that these new in-car features  create for us, but the impact they have on and for consumers. 

Just as we’re continually re-learning the idea that less content, done well, is better than lots of content, we must become the real definition of self-editors – our own worst critics – to determine which pieces of car-focused content are most useful.

Otherwise, the car won’t remain the convenience and the conduit for freedom that it has been for more than a century. It will just become another channel. And nobody wants that – least of all the person behind the wheel.

You can follow Toby Waller on Twitter @tobywaller