As time goes on, the human race gets stronger and more advanced with each new innovative technological step into the future. With computers, the internet, smartphones, GPS and other connected devices that are meant to keep us generally informed, our reliance on these gadgets and services may be inadvertently causing our steady demise. This notion is of even greater concern when the act of driving is involved. Is technology killing our ability to use common sense and retain spatial awareness while driving?

Cellphones and Driving Don't Quite Mix

driving and texting

The words “keep your eyes on the road” are constantly iterated to drivers throughout their lives, yet somewhere down the line, that warning gets lost on lots of people. This isn’t very surprising as nearly all drivers own a smartphone, a whopping 91 percent, according to a survey by State Farm. More than half of those people reported using their phones while driving, revealing a relationship between cellphone use and vehicle crashes.

There’s a significant correlation between self-reported rates of cell phone usage and self-reported number of crashes. Those who used their phones while driving were more likely to have accidents in comparison to those who never used their phones while driving. According to that same State Farm survey, 82 percent of drivers think talking on a hand-held phone is distracting, to which 50 percent said they do it as a means to best utilize their time. It was also said that 95 percent of drivers think sending a text during driving is distracting, while only a supposed 35 percent actually do it.

driving and texting

It was also shown that those who regularly used their cellphones while driving were also prone to other negative driving behavior such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, racing, not wearing seatbelts, and driving while drowsy. It was clear that the greater number of smartphone activities a driver was engaged in, the more likely they were to exhibit other risky driving behaviors.

When asked drivers were asked why they take these distracting risks involving their smartphones, participants said it fulfilled a need to stay in touch, improve efficiency, it was a formed habit, or a compulsion to surf the internet for whatever reason.

GPS Systems Might Be Keeping You from Getting Ahead

gps

Aside from the obvious distraction that smartphones cause drivers, there are some that are meant to help motorists, but do they? Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are meant to help guide drivers to their destinations in the most convenient and seamless way, but as it is a sort of technological crutch, it might be making us worse drivers and effectively “stupid” ones. Years ago, when Apple first released their own maps application, it was riddled with errors, leading drivers into lakes, onto bridges that weren’t there, and generally on the completely wrong path.

Nowadays, mapping programs are much better at telling us where to go and how long it will take us to get there, but many people rely solely on that, which makes them abandon both common sense and their spatial awareness skills. This technology was meant to take the obstacle of unconfidently driving somewhere new out of the way, but instead, it may be placing a more serious blocker in front of us.

map user

According to Nora Newcombe, a Temple University psychologist who studies spatial cognition, there’s increasing evidence that your ability to navigate and to perceive an overview of an area isn’t being utilized and is likely atrophied when constantly using a GPS. You’re not actively navigating, you’re just taking directions from a voice, trusting that it knows where you want to go. You’re also forgoing your ability to innately choose which path you want to go. There is usually more than one way to get somewhere, but a GPS will often give you a limited amount of options, which not always in your best interest in real time.

Neuroscience researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that our brains generally use two ways of navigating. One involves the gradual creation of a spatial map inside the brain, figuring out how streets fit together, eventually allowing one to use the best ways to get between any given space in an area, based off their current position. The other strategy is one of a series of steps and landmarks: walk three blocks north, turn left at the coffee shop, home is on the right. It’s a reliable and quick method, but less flexible.

hippocampus

The first method involves the hippocampus, which is generally used to encode new memories about experiences, called “episodic memories.” This is real learning. The latter, direction-based method uses the part of your brain called the caudate nucleus, which helps with establishing new habits. Veronique Bohbot of McGill University says “This is because you’re not actually learning about the environment, but following a sequence of steps.” This is what navigation systems are essentially modeled after.

Bohbot found that people using the direction-based navigation, especially with the aid of a GPS, show increased activity in their caudate nucleus – the part of the brain good at following directions, and reduced activity in the hippocampus – where spatial maps are created. Bohbot said, “You’re either using one or the other, not both.” While there is no direct evidence that using a GPS leads to lessened hippocampus activity and eventual atrophy, there have been studies that suggest as much.

following directions

A Japanese study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology asked participants to draw a map from memory. Those who used GPS-based navigation systems had less detailed drawing than those who navigate using a more spatially aware method. The act of navigating for yourself is not an obsolete skill and can save you in many situations.     

The Future of Autonomous Driving Technology is Unclear

autonomous car

Something that is quickly arching itself to become the norm one day is autonomous car technology. It seems that just about all major automakers and some tech companies are working on autonomous vehicles, hoping they’ll hit the road at Level 4 in a relatively small timeframe. While this is an exciting new venture the automotive world is embarking on, there are some concerns that would stand in the way of making this seemingly convenient technology perfect.

Just like with cell phones and GPS systems, autonomous driving technology presents a situation for greater distractions. The only difference is that completely autonomous cars will not only allow for distraction but encourage it. If you no longer have to drive a car in the traditional sense, then previously forbidden tasks will be de rigueur while in the car. Reading a book, writing, watching a movie, talking on the phone, or going to sleep, anything other than focusing on the road will be the norm with these machines. On one level, it’s exciting to think one will be able to get more things done on their personal time, but on the other hand, we’re entrusting our lives to a machine that since its creation original has had a history of safety mishaps ending in injury or death.

tesla

Based on reporting by the IIHS, on average, there were 1.18 deaths in a traffic accident in the United States every 100 million miles driven in 2016 (that's all the cars in America, about 263 million in 2016). This is higher than the rate back in 2009. Tesla CEO Elon Musk assures that Tesla’s Autopilot is half as likely to be involved in a crash as a human driver. This suggests that autonomous cars will cut that statistic in half, but earlier last year a Florida man was killed in his Tesla S while engaging the Autopilot function, smashing into an 18-wheel semi-truck.

tesla crash

Because the technology is relatively new in its current form, the notion that they’re safer than cars with human drivers is really theoretical at best. Regulators have had trouble keeping up with the technology in order to control its use and progression. By the time they catch up, autonomous vehicles will likely be the norm in most of society. In that time, safety will be taken for granted by consumers as it always has been, and the technologies failures will be written off as the fault human error.

When the day comes that cars will leave the factory with no steering wheels and no pedals to control the cars, is the day we become so trusting of these machines that our safety is no longer a concern in the traditional sense. However, in a brighter future, technology may progress in a way that is more cognizant of real road safety concerns and takes into consideration all areas of human error. That would be the day we truly succeed in the realm of advanced autonomous vehicle technology.