Is New Car Technology Making Us Irresponsible Drivers?

Could new car technology be making us less aware as drivers?

Could new car technology be making us less aware as drivers?

You’ve likely heard those incredible car tales — the ones where people drift off the road or get lost in the desert because they blindly followed their GPS. These stories seem unbelievable but they happen all the time and leave the passengers in sometimes fatal situations. A quick Google search unearths dozens and dozens of incidents where people have driven into mud pits, mountains, lakes, and even the Pacific Ocean.

These stories beg the question: is advanced driver technology making us dumber drivers? It seems to have left some people without any common sense at all. But let’s ignore, for a moment, the times when following the GPS has led drivers completely astray. When all goes according to plan — when the GPS gets you exactly where you want to go — it still robs you of your processing power and independent spatial awareness.

Ask any teenager or 20-something these days about his or her understanding of a familiar route and you are likely to hear “I’m just bad with directions.” It might not be that the newer generations don’t care, necessarily, but rather that their mental maps are actually much weaker.

A study from the University of Nottingham in England found that those who followed step-by-step instructions struggled to draw a rough map of where they were going, and many didn’t realize they had gone past the same locations twice. But the subjects who used maps did not show the same problems.

Meanwhile, a survey in 2008 found that 1.5 million motorists have suddenly veered in traffic while following their car’s navigation system without paying attention to their surroundings. Of that number, 300,000 motorists followed the sudden veering with a crash.

Undoubtedly, technology makes things easier for us by taking some of the cognitive load off our shoulders. Why worry about future directions when you can just listen to the soothing voice of a navigational system giving you step by step instructions?

Some of these devices are helpful, no doubt, but they make people much more passive drivers. Between conversations, the radio, and whatever else is going on inside your car, it can already be difficult to stay focused on the task at hand. But GPS systems, smartphones, and other technological advancements let the driver take more of a back seat in the driving process.

The more technology in our cars, and the more we rely on systems like a GPS, the less aware we are of our surroundings. These new devices upgrade our car but downgrade our spatial awareness and our processing power. It’s worth thinking twice the next time you’re offered a fancy technological upgrade in your new car.

You can read more about it at the BBC.