Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shall Your Car Chime in?

Are there no ends to technology? The news has brought us all glimpses of how technology is already changing our professional lives. Some of this is in a post I wrote last year How will Attorneys Adapt. Technology is being developed around us and integrated into our lives. I drive a twenty year-old vehicle, which lacks the "bells and whistles." It is sometimes therefore hard for me to adapt to modern technology in newer vehicles. 

There is a television advertisement running recently in which a father/daughter combo are commuting to school in the family car. It features a storyline of the historical challenge parents face when communicating with teenagers; the struggle of communication is "the hook." It does not demonstrate a self-driving car, but a harbinger of that eventuality. This car stops on its own when it senses something in front of it. Distracted by the struggle of conversing with a teen daughter, dad almost rear-ends a vehicle and tragedy is averted by the braking system.

A car I recently rented had a similar feature. As I parked the vehicle in a garage at the Orlando district office, an annoying beeping erupted from the dash. The closer I moved toward the wall in front of the car, the more insistent the warning became. That was handy. I described it to a friend, who related that his car has this feature while his wife's does not. He therefore recently hit a parking lot light pole with his wife's car, because the warning to which he had become accustomed did not remind him not to hit the pole that was literally right in front of his face. Note to self, if you are going to hit something do not do it in your wife's car!

Technology is coming at us from so many directions, and helping us. I reflected upon that recently when I was asked for my home telephone number in relation to a business transaction. I had no idea. I had to look it up in my cell phone. As I reflected on that afterward, I realized that there are only three phone numbers I know: mine, my wife's, and my office. For all else, I am dependent on the storage and memory of my cell phone. If I lost that phone, I would be unable to call anyone else I know. I have no idea what anyone else's number is. Discussing this with colleagues recently, I realized it is far worse than I thought; I do not even know the area code for a great many people I might need to call. Thankfully, my colleagues all claimed to be in the same boat (or they just wanted me to feel less inadequate?)

I rent a great many cars. The accountants at the State of Florida prefer that I rent a car to travel as it is less expensive than the mileage reimbursement rate in most instances. This makes travel far less convenient. Although I do not have to spend hours in line going through airport security, I do get to spend hours standing in line at car rental counters (we do not choose the rental agency, that is chosen for us; though the long waits are troublesome, at least the cars smell really bad once I finally finish the paperwork). In line, I particularly enjoy listening to the rental company employees who are not working as they sit and discuss minutia while the one working rental car clerk processes the usually long line of customers. While I appreciate that one working employee, I always wonder how much faster we could all be on our way if all three or four of the clerks actually waited on customers? But, I digress. 

On one occasion recently, the one clerk that works spent five minutes explaining to the person in front of me that a navigation feature would be of great assistance during their vacation. I overheard this pitch while the other adult and both kids in the group stood by working (playing) away on their three respective smart-phones. Here they were in northwest Florida, fairly apparently headed to the beach (go south, you can't miss it). But how, the clerk asked, would they find restaurants, their hotel, and more without navigation? Believe it or not, this family of smart-phone aficionados agreed to rent the navigation system. Technology on top of technology for the ease of locating food (at heart, perhaps, we are all just hunter-gatherers?)

On another occasion, I was recently driving a rental car back to Pensacola. Every vehicle that passed me either flashed its lights or honked a horn. I was feeling quite popular (or perhaps driving too slow). After several miles, I realized that this compact (basic, but with power windows) car did not have automatic lights. It had a feature that had turned on the headlights (daytime running lights), and I could easily see the road. But apparently, the designers found it less important to turn on the tail lights so that others could see me (and graciously avoid hitting me). It seemed to me that perhaps my not being able to see (no headlights) might be a sound indicator to turn the lights on. That is how my 20 year-old car does it at home. I still struggle to understand why a car would turn on the front lights and leave the back dark until you use a switch?  

So, what does technology do for us? It absolutely helps. Before we stored telephone numbers in our phones, we likely remembered more than we do today. But, the fact is we did not have eidetic memory either. We wrote ourselves a great many notes, and often forgot what we did with them. I even had a digital diary for phone numbers and addresses back in the day (feel really old when I think of technology from the 1970s and 80s). But technology is undoubtedly changing our world, and in the process it is changing us. Today, I remember less numbers because I simply do not need to remember them. 

This all came back to the front of my brain when I read about the most recently announced innovation from General Motors. They are responding to a perceived market "need" with yet another feature. See, a great many news stories recently have featured death or serious injury of children and pets in hot vehicles. 

There have been many stories: Hospital CEO Leaves Child to Die in Hot Car; Fatal Distraction, Leaving a Child. The news reports would make you think it is a near daily occurrence. The statistics support that about 37 children die in the U.S. each year from heat stroke. It is undoubtedly tragic to lose a child or pet in this manner, but it is apparently not as frequent an occurence as the news might lead us to believe.

According to the Insurance Journal "about half of the children under age 14 who die of in-vehicle heatstroke do so as a result of being forgotten." So about 19 children each year, if the statistics above are accurate. But, it also turns out kids are not all we forget, the Journal notes that "items left in the back seat are a target for theft." It says that a notable percentage of larceny in this county involves theft from cars. 

So, General Motors (GM) has yet another technology solution that they will test as a feature on one of their 2017 vehicles, a mid-size sport utility truck (moms apparently like sport utility trucks). GM contends that we are all just too busy. We are not checking that back seat when we leave the car, because "it’s easier than it seems to forget what’s in the back seat when moving between life’s events." So GM's engineers have designed a monitoring system, and are "leading the charge to address this ongoing problem” with American forgetfulness. 

How will it work? The car will know if you have opened the rear doors. If "either of the rear doors is opened and closed within 10 minutes before the vehicle is started, or if they are opened and closed while the vehicle is running," the car will take notice. Your car will be watching you. When you later turn the car off under these circumstances, there will be "five audible chimes" and a "message in the driver information center" (those various dash warning lights). This new one will read “Rear Seat Reminder / Look in Rear Seat.” 

Will other vehicle manufacturers adopt this as a trend, or will it remain a curiosity on a very small portion of the GM fleet (which seems to be an ever decreasing proportion of the vehicles I see on the road)? Will this feature save lives and prevent theft for those who purchase it? Absent some testimonial (paid?) from a live customer, we are unlikely to ever know. The news media is likely not that interested in reporting a "near miss" in which someone "could have" been left in a hot car absent this automatic warning. Will someone leave something in the back seat of their spouse's car because it lacks such a warning to which they were accustomed ("there was no alarm to remind me; my car would have reminded me; I drive a GM _________").

With all of the automation, are we making our world better? Are we helping ourselves? Or are we just conditioning our brains to be less and less self-sufficient? Perhaps I should know to just turn the lights on when it gets dark? Do we want to become as dependent upon our vehicles as we are upon our smartphones? Do we want self-stopping technology, or back seat warning, or automatic lights on one family car, when we may lack it on others. We might find ourselves hitting the car in front of us instead of a parking lot light pole? Or, worse,  we might become so comfortable with our car's autopilot that we become complacent? A Tesla driver may have recently learned that lesson, permanently. He may have been watching movies while letting the car do the driving. You know, "momma always said stupid is as stupid does."

Back in the days of no chimes, alerts, or automation, I once rushed to an appointment. Afterward, I could not find my car keys. After much searching, I returned to the vehicle and found them, dangling in the ignition; both doors locked. A nice police officer opened the car for me. I learned and adapted. Since then, I have habitually checked for my keys before closing my car door. Not because I lack that modern chiming ignition alarm (even 20 year-old cars have those), but because it is habit. I check the other pocket for my cell phone, habit. Should we not just do the same for our back seat, headlights, etc., or is yet another vehicle computer program and chime necessary?

Perhaps all of this vehicle enhancement is just precursor to the ultimate self-driving car. Perhaps these are all just innovations that such a car will need to take care of us and our passengers, to get us place to place. But, as our dependence upon technology grows I worry about what that means for us. Will we remember less and less, becoming ever less functional? For me, this is a periodic issue when I take a trip in a modern car. Most days my antique vehicle keeps me sharp with its foibles and curiosities. But, what does all this mean for the rest of you fortunate enough to drive modern cars daily?

Are we really better off? Do we really need these technology solutions like "rear seat reminders?"

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