It’s been just over a century since Ford Motor Company began mass-producing their Model T.
Since then, cars have been at the forefront of the technological revolution. But is every new feature really a step forward, or do we need to think twice about some of the newer technologies the automotive industry seems to be embracing?
Thanks to the dawn of the Model T, it became a realistic possibility for an average consumer to own their own automobile. In 1908, the year that Ford began producing the Model T, there were 2.24 cars per every thousand people in the United States. By 2014, that number was 816.38 per every thousand.
As cars have become more and more common, they’ve had an immeasurable impact on our society, fundamentally changing the way we build our homes, our cities, and our lives.
And cars themselves have changed significantly since the early 20th century. In 1929, Paul Galvin invented the first mass-produced car radio, allowing drivers and passengers to stay informed and entertained. In 1959, Nils Bohlin invented the now-ubiquitous three-point seatbelt. A little less than a decade later, Allen Breed invented the first automotive airbag system. More recently, we’ve seen the introduction of onboard diagnostics, backup cameras, and built-in GPS navigation.
As the technology that goes into our cars continues to become more and more advanced, it’s important to ask ourselves a question: Is this technology actually improving our lives?
The drastically enhanced mobility that cars allowed brought with it negative consequences like injuries due to auto accidents; sprawling, pedestrian-unfriendly suburbs; and environment-threatening C02 emissions. Likewise, the ever-advancing technologies becoming more and more common come with their own pitfalls.
Here are two ways that advances in car technology might be doing more harm than good.
GPS is bad for our brains.
GPS can be enormously helpful when you need to get somewhere you’ve never been quickly and efficiently. These days it can even tip you off to traffic jams and road closures you might not have known about otherwise. But, as with most advancing technologies, there’s a downside.
According to a set of studies published by researchers at McGill University, regular use of GPS systems may have a negative effect on brain function, specifically on the hippocampus—the part of the brain largely responsible for tasks involving memory and navigation.
There are essentially two primary ways of navigating. The first, called spatial navigation, uses external information like landmarks to make a mental map of an area or route, which we then use to determine where we are and how we can get to where we want to go. Spatial navigation occurs in the hippocampus.
The other method of navigation, know as stimulus-response strategy, occurs in the striatum and centers around following prescribed directions, whether they’re written on a piece of paper, learned by rote, or said to you by a GPS system.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines to scan the brains of two groups of adults: those who used GPS and those who didn’t. The scans revealed that the group who didn’t use GPS had greater amounts of activity and more gray matter in the hippocampus than those who tended to rely on GPS for navigation. The non-GPS users also had better results when they took a standardized test used to diagnose for mild cognitive impairment, specifically the type that often comes before the the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We live in a society that’s so fast-paced that it encourages us to feel bad if we get lost,” said Veronique Bohbot, Ph.D., a memory expert involved in the studies. While she doesn’t advocate totally eliminating the use of GPS, she does advise drivers to limit its use to finding new locations—then turn it off for the return trip, or when you’re headed somewhere in an area you’re familiar with.
Pediatric neurologist Dr. Max Wiznitzer, MD, on the other hand, prefers to find his way to new destinations without digital assistance.
“There is something to be said about intellectual enrichment, having some type of reserve that may be able to lessen the impact of cognitive decline,” he said.
Touchscreens take our eyes (and minds) off the road.
Possibly the most widely derided development in car technology in recent years is the rising popularity of touchscreen controls in cars.
Interestingly, touchscreen controls in cars aren’t quite as new of a development as you might think. All the way back in 1986, Buick first introduced the feature in its Riviera model. Rather than colorful high-resolution LCD screens in newer cars though, the Riviera’s touchscreen (or Graphic Control Center, as Buick then referred to it) featured a cathode-ray tube with a green-on-black screen that looked something like an old-school ATM. From there, drivers could view gauges, adjust climate controls, and switch the radio station.
When Popular Mechanics reviewed the car and its touchscreen system back in ’86, they came to the conclusion that it “violates the First Commandment of ergonomics—you must take your eyes off the road to make any adjustments.”
And, though touchscreen technology has made great leaps since 1986, the issue of distraction is still one that plagues this newer trend toward touchscreen interfaces. In many ways, the advancement of the technology has exacerbated these problems rather than mitigated them. Now, the screens are bigger, brighter, and more colorful. Some even connect with social media sites to display your friends’ posts on the screen.
To make matters worse, each system is different and therefore has a learning curve of its own. Additionally, many touchscreen interfaces require the driver to navigate through multi-level menus and submenus in order to achieve seemingly simple tasks—for instance, opening and closing the sunroof.
Having that level of distraction constantly in one’s periphery is a recipe for disaster, according to some experts.
“You can’t be looking at a screen and be looking at the road at the same time,” said David Strayer, Ph.D. a professor of cognition and neuroscience at the University of Utah. Strayer, who is responsible for several studies on distracted driving believes that touchscreens in cars “are enabling activities that take your eyes off the road for longer than most safety advocates would say is safe.”
According to Strayer, even touchscreen systems that allow drivers to use voice commands to control them present dangerous levels of distraction. In one study, Strayer observed that a driver moving at only 25 miles per hour remains distracted for up to 27 seconds after executing a voice command on touchscreen systems rated as highly distracting, and up to 15 seconds for those rated as moderately distracting. (The study included 10 model year 2015 vehicles, three of which were rated as moderately distracting, six highly distracting, and one as very highly distracting.)
“Most people think, ‘I hang up and I’m good to go,” said Strayer. “But that’s just not the case. We see it takes a surprisingly long time to come back to full attention. Even sending a short text message can cause almost another 30 seconds of impaired attention.”
But some of the academics we spoke to were less concerned.
While many are alarmed at the potential consequences of touchscreen interfaces in cars, some of the academics we spoke to had a different view of the situation.
One of them was John Heywood Ph.D., D.Sc., a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.
“Most changes shift the balance point in a several-variable trade off,” he says, pointing out that, though the screens may distract drivers by taking their eyes off the road longer, they can also keep the driver abreast of valuable information like approaching changes in road, traffic, and weather conditions.”
Heywood also emphasizes a more nuanced approach to the topic, reminding us that the question of touchscreens versus more traditional (and tactile) buttons and knobs isn’t a simple binary.
“Details like placement of the screen, and placement of knobs, affect the ‘distraction’ impact strongly,” he says.
Ultimately, Heywood trusts consumers to be aware of both the pros and cons that come with new technology—and make sensible choices accordingly. He tells us that he believes “the market does pretty well over time in feeding back what the vehicle driver really wants or likes.”
Likewise, Andre Boehman, professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan and director of the W.E. Lay Automotive Laboratory, had a generally positive view of advancements in automotive technology. Though he does say he understands the concerns surrounding touchscreens and distraction, he goes on to say, “Otherwise, I do not have any concerns about advancing vehicle technologies.”
Boehman points to various recent improvements in car technology, specifically citing advances in energy efficiency.
“From the powertrain perspective, cars are getting cleaner and more efficient as manufacturers pursue the targets for fuel economy and tailpipe emissions,” he says, adding that, “These are good things for consumers and the environment.”
While Boehman says he is personally “ambivalent” about the much-hyped development of self-driving cars, he does add that he believes “the lower levels of autonomy are great additions for vehicle safety.”
He also adds that his personal experience with some new car technologies is overwhelmingly positive, saying, “Proximity sensing and adaptive cruise control are excellent features of cars that my wife and I presently are driving.”