I don’t think anyone can argue that technology makes many aspects of our lives simpler and more convenient, but it often brings complications with it as well, as we all know. But every once in a while, something comes along that just unambiguously makes things better. Stuff like the vaccine, electrical lights, and improved communications technology.
Add to that list just about any “convenience” gadget you can build into a car. I’ve long maintained that everything from power windows to automatic transmission is, in fact, a safety feature: anything you can get a machine to do for you while you’re driving reduces the amount of distraction you suffer while performing the task, which by definition makes you a less distracted driver and thus a safer driver.
It seems that, in one area at least, the National Highway Safety Transportation Agency (NHTSA) agrees: a few months ago they passed a new regulation requiring all new street-legal cars to come with backup cameras as standard features, starting in 2018.
The area immediately behind a car is the most difficult part of a driver’s surroundings to see, for obvious reasons, and backing into somebody is responsible for a horrifying number of serious injuries and deaths (over 15,000 each year), with the victims disproportionately being young children–again for obvious reasons: they’re too short to be seen over the rear of the car!
As the owner of a car with a backup camera, I have to applaud this. The car’s computer draws lines on the screen over the image, one set going straight back and another that curves as I turn the wheel, showing me exactly where I’m going, and making it so I can drive backwards just as confidently as driving forwards. When I’m traveling and have to get a rental car, it makes me wonder how anyone ever managed without a backup camera. (And given rental agencies’ propensity for keeping their fleets stocked with new-model cars, that’s not likely to remain a problem for long!)
The other upside is that having a screen required on the dash is likely to result in putting the screen to other uses, such as an increase in the adoption of GPS navigation as a standard feature. Having used both built-in GPS and external GPS units, the built-in one is a much better system for two reasons. First, it draws power directly from the car’s electrical system instead of having its own battery. I had a rental GPS unit crap out on me once due to a bad connection with the cigarette lighter charger, in the middle of a busy freeway in an unfamiliar city. It was about as pleasant an experience as you’d imagine, which is to say not at all, and if that never happens to anyone else again it’ll be too soon. And second, an integrated GPS can integrate. For example, when the one in my car goes to speak a driving direction, its integration with my car’s computer automatically turns down the radio if I have it on so I can hear the directions clearly. An external unit just can’t do that.
I just wish the implementation timetable wasn’t so long. With the prices of modern hardware, a camera won’t add all that much to the cost or complexity of building a car. If you could make a rule that would prevent that many tragic deaths and injuries, would you want to say “but it’s OK for the status quo to continue for 4 years”?