By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Technology’s highway to hell
dennis Wyatt web
Dennis Wyatt

This is going to sound a tad neurotic but here goes: My car doesn’t understand me.

I always thought my Aunt Grace — a top flight emergency room nurse who for decades worked the graveyard shuffle at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco — was a tad eccentric for always referring to her 1960 Chevy Bel Air as Betsy.

She’d actually talk to “Betsy” asking her to do this or that. She did the same thing when her right leg she dubbed “Peggy” that she injured working in the shipyards during World War II was giving her problems. That said, I don’t think I ever heard her ask “Betsy” to call someone or to tune the radio to a certain channel.

It’s been a little over two years since I bought my 2017 Ford Focus. Technology had changed a bit since I bought my previous vehicle, a 2008 Ford Escape hybrid. I really wasn’t looking for a Bluetooth enabled vehicle that apparently can completely synch with my Apple i-Phone 8. It happened to be on the Focus I wanted that was at the right interest rate, which was zero.

The salesman, Eric James Jalli who was 18 years of age and on his first week or so on the job, was trying to tell me about the virtues of the Focus that I ended up opting for after test driving a Fusion that wasn't loaded with gadgets that Grace likely couldn’t phantom. I’m sure she would have been in heaven if her 1960 tank just had power steering.

The kid — I was old enough to be his grandfather — was explaining how the Focus came with satellite radio in the form of SiriusXM. I remember dismissing that selling point as he turned the channel telling him my preference when driving was listening to one of my Frank Sinatra CDs.

In an instance, he had SiriusXM on Channel 71 — the Sinatra Channel.

I’ll admit he knew the right answers, but I was already sold on the Focus over the Fusion because in the words I told him it didn’t drive “like an old man’s car.”  That’s pretty rich coming from someone whose favorite singer is Frank Sinatra.

Needless to say, I have learned to appreciate having Bluetooth capability to change the radio or to make a call — to a degree.

The problem is the Bluetooth struggles to hear me unless I turn the volume all the way up and enunciate each word at a nice leisurely pace of six words a minute. How the perky voice responds to a command is interesting to say the least. I ask for Bluetooth to call “Kay cell” and it comes back “calling “kayceecee”. 

Despite an apparent language barrier, I do use the Bluetooth when I’m driving to change channels. I use the Bluetooth phone function sparingly. Some people don’t get that as they say it is no different than having someone on the car with you are talking to as you drive. But if it is a call related to work — specifically someone that may want something printed in the Bulletin — that means I will need to take notes. That is something I’m no got to do while driving. I will take such calls by pulling over. As for placing calls using Bluetooth while driving it has to be ones that require minimum distraction.

After Tuesday, however, I may rethink even doing that.

The National Transportation Safety Board indicated that when a Tesla SUV in Autopilot mode crashed on March 23, 2018 into a concrete barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View the driver — software engineer Walter Huang who was killed — was playing a video game on his smartphone at the time.

Tesla has repeatedly emphasized its Autopilot system is basically a glorified cruise control assisted by radar that helps keep a car in its lane, maintain a safe distance, and change lanes if asked to do so by the driver. It is designed to make driving safer by aiding the driver. If the driver disengages, all bets are off.

The NTSB nine years ago recommended that auto manufacturers deploying “autopilot” systems come up with ways to disable distractions on smartphones such as playing video games, web surfing, and making calls while the user is driving. If Amazon can come up with a Trojan horse snitch like Alexa that can listen in on words a user is saying to glean marketing data then Tesla et al can come up with technology to disable a driver’s smartphone.

Back when Grace was driving “Betsy” there weren’t a lot of health clubs around. That’s because you could get a full body workout driving cars before power steering and before automatic transmissions. It required your undivided attention to maneuver many cars that literally were as nimble as tanks.

Technology in car design has made vehicles easier to drive and more likely for drivers and passengers to survive crashes with nary a scratch that years ago would have resulted in serious injury or even death. Auto manufacturers have done an impressive job dampening sound and creating driver seats that are often more comfort and relaxing than chairs people have in their homes. And to top it off they tossed in sound systems that even in the economy models run circles around the static laced AM radio receptions of vehicles just 60 years ago.

Because of that the injury and death rate per 100,000 miles driven had been steadily dropping until in recent years when there was a slight upward bump.

The likely culprit is the device that almost all of us act as if we disengage from it for even a few minutes that we will stop breathing.

Smartphones are only as smart as the user. Rest assured that a software engineer in a Tesla with the latest driving aid designed to make them even safer drivers as long as they use it right isn’t the only person in the whole USA that plays video games while driving or surfs the web. The fact they are in a Tesla equipped with Autopilot makes them marginally safer doesn’t end all risk.

Take a walk on the wild side — a sidewalk along any major arterial in Manteca will do — and keep count of the number of people you see either looking down or holding a smartphone in plain sight as they drive. You will be stunned by what you see. The amazing thing is that there are not even more accidents than are happening.

Because other drivers are still attentive and the smartphone offender may be “on their game” enough to multi-task much of the time without incident, there are endless close calls without metal caressing metal or two ton killing and maiming machines meeting 180 pounds of muscle and blood. Avoiding accidents day in and day out while using smartphones while driving whether it is to text, play video games or whatever gets people to believing they are bulletproof.

What they forget is the game they are playing is Russian roulette on wheels. Keep pushing your luck and eventually you or someone else is going to pay the price.