On The Dial: Gadgetry and Responsibility

It used to be that we turned on the radio – and that’s all we did to keep entertained and informed while rolling along the highway.

The void on the upper end of the center stack of our new vehicle certainly evolved over the past several decades. We began just with an AM radio band. Then we added the FM band, 8-track tape cartridges, cassette tapes, compact discs…and so forth. Today, we can do so many things than just listen to music while we drive – it is starting to become distracting.

Yet, has our want for infotainment really turned into a distraction? Think about what we connect to what we used to call a car radio. Today, we plug in our smart phones, MP3 players, iPods, tablet devices and portable GPS units into it. We also use the old car radio to find our way to Point B, check out how long the back-up is on our commute route, determine whether those ominous clouds to the west will come your way and which talk show host should you call to give a piece of your mind to?

A lot has changed since the days when we stuck a bumper sticker to the back of our car proudly proclaiming our loyalty to our favorite station.

The name of the game these days is infotainment. There are about 200 channels of broadcasted programming in all – with almost everything on. Satellite radio subscribers can choose a subgenre of music to plug into a preset to their liking. There are also channels for every community, culture and language on SiriusXM.

HD Radio adds additional programming on top of a given terrestrial frequency. For example, in Los Angeles, if you yearn for the old days of KROQ (like I do), you can switch another channel under the same frequency to get a station featuring music from the original "Roq of the ‘80s." You'll be surprised what is available in your local area when you flip through the additional channels underneath your favorite station. Some manufacturers now give motorists the ability to stream their Pandora or Shazam music accounts on board their automobiles. Is that enough music, news, sports and everything else for you?

Once we add on our phones and digital music players, then our vehicle becomes an overgrown mobile device. It is from this point where we are no longer entertained. We are connected. Throw in a vehicle's navigation system, and we're being tracked while we're finding our way somewhere else.

Does the sheer mass of infotainment options lend to the potential of distracted driving? How much can a driver handle with these devices and services positioned within a steering wheel's reach?

Last week, I conducted an online survey to find out our behaviors when bombarded with this flood of technology inside of our automobile. The impression the survey gave me was that we love our peripherals – our iPods, MP3 players, smartphones and tablets – to the point that we would like to use them as much as possible. When we use our phones, we would like them use them while driving, but adhering to the campaigns led by our Federal and state governments to use them sparingly and with a hands-free option.

When asked about using social media applications and texting, our respondents were split as to whether a car could be used to enable these functions on board. Though there seems to be an acceptance of social media tools in staying connected, our respondents recognize that a line has to be drawn as to how they are used. The automobile may become a "no-go" zone for using social media while driving leading towards any incidents pertaining to distracted driving.

As for navigating ourselves from Point A to Point B, we have a tendency to always look up our directions on paper maps, road atlases and online through Google, Yahoo and Mapquest ahead of jumping in the vehicle. While most of us do not have a GPS or navigation screen on board our vehicles, our respondents are split between using printed maps and DVD/satellite-driven screens to find our way. However, when given a chance, the respondents stated they would most likely use the navigation screen over a paper map for this purpose, especially when assisted by a telematics system, such as OnStar or Lexus Enform.

In all, it appears to be an overall acceptance of most of the technology pertaining to infotainment systems in a vehicle. We certainly have emerged from just listening to the radio to plugging in our portable devices to fulfill our want to be entertained while driving. Still, the automobile has so much more it wants to offer – if we want it.

The larger question remains whether the current technology and further enhancements to infotainment systems forthcoming could be useful enough to keep us completely focused on our driving. Motorists should recognize the line between just being entertained in the background and being completely distracted by texts and Facebook drama.

Still, there are many of us who still feels overwhelmed by the sheer mountain of information we receive. When we thought we could do anything behind the wheel, the last thing we need is infotainment overload. But, could we live with just verbal directions via the navigation system and our favorite 75 songs playing on shuffle through our speakers?

We, as gadget people, might feel the squeeze for our love of our devices and the various campaigns to make sure they're kept at bay when we're on the move. What I have found is that we can be very responsible in our use of our devices when we're driving, bicycling, riding the bus or train, or walking down the street.

We love our gadgets too much to not stay connected with people we sometimes care about. Perhaps finding that balance when behind the wheel is a better way to continue being a safe and responsible driver. Don't worry – you'll get there.

Photo by Randy Stern

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