Like the Kids in Lake Wobegon

Columns From: 9/19/2012 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Let’s look at this for a moment. People are eating or drinking, speeding, talking on a handheld cell, and/or quite possibly sleeping. Yet they think they are safe drivers.

Billy Mann is the managing director of Penn Schoen Berland (, a market research firm. He says that the company does a significant amount of its work within the auto space because, like other tech firms, auto wants to know what people are thinking. Real people. What they are really thinking. And I wonder whether some of those people are doing a good job of thinking. Or of driving.

The firm conducted an on-line survey between May 7 and 14. The sample size was 2,506. The margin of error is ±1.96%. The study was focused on U.S. drivers aged 18 and above. The work was done for Ford.

Some of the results are breathtaking.

As in, to “Which of these things have you ever done when driving? Please select all that apply”:
• 76% eat or drink
• 55% speed
• 53% talk on a handheld cell phone
• 37% drive when too tired
• 25% pick up their phone to search for contacts

And to amplify that “drive when too tired” result, know that 83% “say either they or someone they know has driven when very tired” and “46% have fallen asleep at the wheel or know someone who has.”

Here’s the kicker:

“Generally speaking, would you consider yourself a safe driver?”

To which 99% answered “Yes.”

Let’s look at this for a moment. People are eating or drinking, speeding, talking on a handheld cell, and/or quite possibly sleeping. Yet they think they are safe drivers.

So what do they want? Says Mann, “People want technology that will make them better drivers.”

For years people I know who write about cars for a living have railed against technologies that are engineered to improve driving. Things like anti-lock brakes (ABS) and electronic stability control (ESC). When you’re throwing a car around a track you probably don’t want the ESC kicking in too early as that will attenuate your track time. But when you’re driving along a slippery two-lane highway and go into a sharp curve too quickly and begin to lose your rear end, you certainly hope that you have the technology that intervenes such that you don’t lose your rear literally and figuratively. I am all for technology because the 99% notwithstanding, there are a whole lot of drivers who are well over their heads under the best of conditions, so every little bit helps.

So what is the technology that the surveyed told Penn Schoen Berland that they’re interested in? Blind-spot detection systems; collision warning; adaptive cruise control; voice-activated calling using Bluetooth and their own cell phone; self-parking; and voice-activated text messaging.

And Ford, not coincidentally, is making these technologies not only available on the 2013 Fusion, but affordably available, with the each of the functions starting under $1,000, according to Amy Marentic, Ford Group Marketing manager. How are they able to do this in such an affordable manner? Randy Visintainer, director of Ford Research and Innovation, explains that a big part of it goes to economies of scale: by putting these technologies in a mass-market car like the Fusion (through August, the company sold 181,865 Fusions) and then by extending them to other markets (as in the Fusion’s European variant, the Mondeo), suppliers are given greater orders for sensors and electric power steering and the like than they would be were the order for just a luxury model or even a luxury brand (last year Ford sold 248,067 Fusions and 85,643 Lincolns—the entire lineup of Lincolns). The phrase they use at Ford is “the democratization of technology.”

Sheryl Connelly, Ford manager of Global Trends and Futuring, says that the results of the survey point to the fact that among many people there is a “tangible sense of time poverty.” This leads to multitasking. Like having a Big Mac while behind the wheel, speeding, and having a difficult time of staying in one’s lane, to say nothing of staying conscious.

Some of the 99% probably know the equation F = m x v, or Force equals mass times velocity. What they may not take into account is the fact that a car like the 2013 Fusion weighs about 3,400 lb., and that while technically a car that is turning has a changing velocity even though it may be going a set speed, when said moving mass hits, say, a static object (e.g., a tree) or another moving object (another car), the consequences are generally Not Good. Technology can help. It can assist. But never should a driver do much more than . . . drive