Tesla’s In-Car Video Games Didn’t Invent Distracted Driving

We’re losing the plot on what makes Tesla, and distracted driving, dangerous.

Dec 9 2021, 2:00pm
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an article that warned of a “New Tesla Safety Concern,” as the headline blared, an issue that “raises fresh questions about whether Tesla is compromising safety as it rushes to add new technologies.” The concern? The in-car video games can now be played while the car is moving.

On the face of it, this does sound concerning. Imagine: Driving while gaming! And the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA), which regulates vehicle and road safety, appears concerned as well, telling Reuters it is “aware of driver concerns and are discussing the feature” with Tesla.

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But it is not at all clear how “new” the issue really is, or how concerning, especially when compared with what every automaker—and driver—has been doing for decades.

Tesla vehicles have display screens that are large tablets mounted in the center console between the passenger and driver, an increasingly common design replicated by other automakers. The video game feature, which previously was only available when the car was parked, has been enabled when the car is in driving mode for about a year now so people in the passenger seat can play (they can also use an internet browser to do normal internet stuff; here is someone watching Netflix while driving, and someone else apparently watching YouTube while driving). The concern expressed by various safety experts in the article is that drivers can play Solitaire while the car is moving, too, increasing the risk of distracted driving and potentially leading to more crashes.

It is currently quite fashionable to bash Tesla for prioritizing technological development over public safety. I, for one, do it all the time, specifically regarding the company beta-testing buggy driver assist software on public roads with superfans acting as safety drivers. But I would hardly call loading games on a tablet “adding new technologies” as the Times does; nothing except for pesky state laws and common sense has been preventing anyone from using an iPad however they like while driving. 

More importantly, in this particular case, Tesla is not doing anything particularly or even uniquely dangerous. When it comes to giant, distracting screens, every automaker is guilty.

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The phrase “distracted driving” emerged with the spread of smart phones in the late 2000s and early 2010s. But drivers have been distracted for decades, as researcher John Senders found in the 1960s with a series of experiments to determine how much attention drivers needed to pay just to go down the road. Back then, cars only had radios, heaters, and maybe air conditioning knobs to fiddle with. But drivers still got distracted because of kids in the backseat, the soda you spill in your lap, or the sandwich you’re trying to eat while driving with your knees. 

At the time, automakers didn’t talk about or try to compete on safety, as historian Lee Vinsel detailed in the book Moving Violations: Automobiles, Experts, and Regulations in the United States. Instead, they refused to admit safety was their responsibility and shifted the blame onto drivers. Essentially, if you crashed your car, it was your own fault. Despite decades of research that has steadily eroded the idea that the vast majority of crashes are due to human error, we still embrace this idea, because it’s comforting to believe that people deserve the bad things that happen to them. One of the most prominent forms of that attitude in the modern era is the rhetoric around distracted driving. 

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To be sure, the argument formed by industry and government PSAs regarding distracted driving is a powerful one. Looking at your phone while driving is an obviously dumb and dangerous thing to do. If you crash your car while doing so, the argument goes, it is your own fault. 

There is truth to that, except for the fact that almost everyone does it. At any given point at any given day, about one in 10 drivers are using their phones, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. A study by the company Zendrive found drivers use their phones at some point during 88 percent of all trips. Zendrive, which makes driving risk assessment software, has an obvious incentive to make roads seem more dangerous than they are. But even if that study was off by a factor of three, it would still be a terrifying number. The undeniable conclusion is, if everyone using their phones while driving deserves to get in a crash, then virtually all drivers, at one time or another, are asking for catastrophe.

Cell phones are just one aspect of the distracted driving landscape. In-car “Infotainment” systems are getting increasingly distracting as well. Fiddling with the radio has long been a recognized form of distracted driving, but back when doing so was manipulating knobs, drivers could go more on feel while keeping their eyes on the road. Many of today’s cars have replaced those tactile controls with touchscreens, requiring drivers to take their eyes off the road.

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As Reuters reported, NHTSA issued guidelines way back in 2013 asking automakers to “factor safety and driver distraction prevention into their designs and adoption of infotainment devices in vehicles” such that “they cannot be used by the driver to perform inherently distracting secondary tasks while driving.” Automakers have completely ignored these guidelines. Recently, I rented a Honda Civic and to start a new playlist on Spotify through Android Auto took a minimum of 10 seconds, usually more like 30, all of which required my eyes to be on the screen, not the road. This was an everyday activity that’s a recognized part of driving. And it is fundamentally no different in terms of driving risk than playing a game of digital Solitaire.

The problem of increasingly distracting Infotainment screens is getting attention from safety advocates and nonprofits, but automakers show no signs of retreating from touchscreen life. Cadillac and Mercedes are selling cars with hyperscreens that stretch across the entire dash, which depending on the design, may have safety benefits through larger icons and more predictable placement. Or they may simply enable more distractions. On the same day the Times ran its story about Tesla’s video games, Stellantis, the parent company of Jeep, Dodge, and Chrysler, announced it wants to earn $22.5 billion in annual revenue from selling software to its cars’ owners by 2030, a business strategy that fundamentally relies on cars having giant, programmable, manipulable touchscreens.

Mercedes Hyperscreen. Credit: Mercedes-Benz

With all of these longstanding risks in mind, it’s hard to see how the Tesla video game feature is all that different. At its absolute worst, Tesla is requiring drivers to make the same basic safety decisions drivers have been making their entire lives; about whether to check their phone while cruising down the highway, munch on french fries while in stop-and-go traffic, or pull over to deal with the kids in the back seat. Tesla is merely adding “Should I play Solitaire right now?” to the list. They are questions drivers have been getting consistently wrong for the better part of 70 years.

Over the decades, this behavior has become so normalized most people don’t consider them wrong answers anymore. I once was in a cab and the driver was texting while driving. I asked him to please put the phone down or I’d have to get out, at which point he assured me there was nothing to worry about, he was a good texter and driver. I thought afterwards, how does one determine who is “good” at texting and driving? The only possible answer is that bad ones crash. It’s a completely irrational and unsupportable assertion, but it makes people feel better about their own habits and upholds the myth that drivers get what they deserve.

So there are two ways to proceed. We can blame Tesla for putting video games on its giant tablet, for having a giant tablet in the first place, all other automakers for their touchscreens too, and Apple and Google for their roles in developing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and not being more aggressive disabling basic features when their products detect they’re in a car in motion (which would necessarily disable those same features for passengers, too, an annoying but necessary sacrifice if we truly cared about safety above all else). We can, in other words, hold automakers and tech companies accountable for quite obviously not making safety their highest priority and failing to incorporate safety features that would be deeply unpopular but effective at saving tens of thousands of lives a year. We can also hold government regulators like NHTSA accountable for doing little more than politely asking car companies to think about safety once in a while.

The other option is to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We can accept that driving revolves around the concept of individual responsibility and everyone else also taking that responsibility seriously. This concept has proven woefully inadequate over the decades at promoting safety, but we can admit that, as a society, we simply do not care. And hopefully, some of us will make the right choices and stop texting, radio fiddling, eating, drinking, reading, fucking, and lord knows what else while driving. And every time we get in our cars we will cross our fingers and hope for the best from those on the road around us, whether they’re in a Tesla or not.

Tagged:

Distracted Driving, Moveable

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