You cannot escape the conclusion when you sit behind the wheel of the new BMW 5 Series that the outside world has now become a part of what used to be an inner world, the cocoon of a car - a place in which it was possible to escape. With the BMW - and other cars out there - the interior has become the office or home. It's all about connectivity. From apps. to maps to phone calls and e-mails, the 5 Series has you covered. Almost every possible type of information is now accessible and so are you.
Everything is now a click or a swipe away.
It is quite a selling point for BMW and for the many other car companies now playing catch up. Peugeot's i-cockpit already features very advanced touchscreen technology but even more advanced features are promised. The same is true of Tesla and Mercedes. And every other car manufacturer is also chasing the unique selling point of more and more connectivity. It seems we just can't get enough of it as technology becomes increasingly present in our daily lives.
I've been wondering at the pace of development in this area for some time but, in particular, I've been wondering if we are capable of the kind of discipline needed to keep technology at a safe remove when driving ? And, if not, what are the consequences ? Very often, I have found myself focusing on a touchscreen when I should have been focusing on the road, as I seek to alter a route on the satellite navigation system or change from the radio to music on my 'phone or some other task.
When the 5 Series tells us we have an email (albeit through a voice connection from the car's infotainment system) will we react as many of us now do with a text message and instantly check to see if it's important ? And then feel it is necessary to respond, whether it's really important or not ? Or will we wait until we are stopped and it is safe to do so ? Or even switch off the system until it is safe to engage it ?
It would be unfair to single out BMW when considering some of these issues but it is only when you sit in the high tech environment of a car like the 5 Series that you realise just how far it has all come in a very short time and how far it will go in the future. Connectivity comes at us in waves as our driving experience mirrors that of our non-driving lives.
In fairness, the BMW e-mail technology is a hands free facility so it's not like you have to type a message on a screen when driving. It can be used safely. The seemingly limitless range of information we can now access from a car like the 5 Series makes life so much easier. Its technology is marvelous, as the system accommodates your voice and and allows you to access everything through your voice.
BMW says all the technology it features is covered by relevant legislation and EU directives and a spokesperson for BMW Ireland said the company was not pursuing more connectivity of itself but rather because it is what customers are demanding.
The question is 'though, how many drivers are disciplined enough to manage their technology - especially on a busy suburban road or on a motorway at 120 KPH or more ? Especially when the experts tell us that using a hands-free device involves the same level of cognitive impairment as a having a 'phone in your hand when driving.
Distracted driving is a major contributor to road accidents.
I asked the Road Safety Authority if it recorded figures for the incidence of driver distraction in road accidents - a difficult measurement as drivers can often conceal the fact. The RSA referred me to its website where is states: "Based on international evidence it is estimated that driver distraction could play a role in 20-30% of all road collisions in this country. This means that driver distraction could be a contributory factor in over 1,400 fatal and injury collisions annually".
This is also the reason the RSA has mounted a huge advertising campaign on the issue of distracted driving, focusing on mobile 'phones and texting.
There are, of course, many forms of distraction, ranging from make-up application to burger eating, but phones and texting are among the major contributors internationally.
And if you think you might be less distracted than others, consider these points from the Royal Society of the Prevention of Accidents.
"A substantial body of research shows that using a hand-held or hands-free mobile phone while driving is a significant distraction, and substantially increases the risk of the driver crashing.
Drivers who use a mobile phone, whether hand-held or hands-free:
- are much less aware of what's happening on the road around them
- fail to see road signs
- fail to maintain proper lane position and steady speed
- are more likely to 'tailgate' the vehicle in front
- react more slowly, take longer to brake and longer to stop
- are more likely to enter unsafe gaps in traffic
- feel more stressed and frustrated.
They are also four times more likely to crash, injuring or killing themselves and other people.
Using a hands-free phone while driving does not significantly reduce the risks because the problems are caused mainly by the mental distraction and divided attention of taking part in a phone conversation at the same time as driving".
The World Health Organisation cautions: "Using hands-free phones while driving has been shown to lead to reduced visual monitoring of instruments in the car and the general traffic situation, and negatively impacts on vehicle control. This evidence suggests that hands-free phones are not safer to use than hand-held phones in terms of driving performance.
Although this may seen counter-intuitive, evidence showing that it is the cognitive distraction that has the most impact upon driving performance may explain why using a hands-free mobile phone may be as likely to cause a crash as using a hand-held mobile phone".
Professor Ian Robertson, a neuroscientist at TCD, is an international expert in cognitive impairment:
"Human attention is a narrow and precious resource. If we are paying attention to one thing, for example email, then that diminishes attention to another. That is, driving. While this may be ok in highly routine situations like driving down an empty road - because the driving skill here is highly automated and so doesn't need much attention - in any situation which is non-routine, the double tasking will make you slower in your reaction. And more prone to error. For example, you will more likely strike a car suddenly pulling out in front of you if you are in the middle of hands free emailing. So the more hands free communication, the more dangerous a driver you will be", is his conclusion.
Like a lot of other things then, the lesson is here is not the technology itself but how carefully it is used.
In the meantime, cars like the new 5 Series offer a really impressive and useful set of tools that make life on the road so much easier. Using its systems for communication, navigation, information and entertainment is a real pleasure and eliminates much of what was previously a driving chore. And it is all cleverly designed and intuitive. The technology is there it can be ignored at will but, because more and more customers are demanding more and more connectivity, this is unlikely to be the case.
The question 'though is how disciplined we are prepared to be when using those systems ? Will we rely on a passenger to use it without distracting the driver or, if driving alone, actually stop the car to use it safely ?
With car companies constantly meeting our growing connectivity demands we as drivers might reflect more on what we wish for.
Our full review of the latest 5 Series follows in a few weeks.