This summer knocked motorists' sense of normal right on its bum. Chrysler said no to a NHTSA recall request. An AAA study found in-car voice-activated text and email processes caused greater distraction than using a phone, whether handheld or hands-free. And I drove a CNG Acadia and X3.
It was also full of irony. I sat at a red light listening to a radio story regarding Eddy Cue, an Apple executive (the man likely charged with any effort to place an Apple operating system or device like Cadillac's CUE in your next vehicle dashboard, and a member of Ferrari's board of directors), followed by a story on Department of Justice e-book pricing and monopolies investigation.
As I was sitting there wondering how Siri could be heard over my rattling diesel, a pedestrian texter walked into my truck. I'd already heard survey results showing phone- and texting-related pedestrian injuries were up by a factor of three, so it was only a question of time before I encountered it.
AAA's study, performed by University of Utah researchers, used cameras, red/green-light dashboard triggering devices, and a skullcap to monitor brainwaves. They found listening to the radio means minimal distraction (level 1), talking on a phone is riskier (level 2), and composing emails or texting using voice control is more distracting yet (level 3). In their words, hands-free does not mean risk-free.
No surprise there. A call that keeps my hands on the controls much like having a conversation with a third-row passenger. I can tune a radio or search a cassette or CD (old truck) and drive a stick in traffic, and I have yet to hit anything I didn't plan to.
As a result of the study, AAA would like to see voice control used only for driving -- to activate things such as wipers, headlights, defroster, cruise control, etc. -- at least when the car is moving. The manufacturers pouring billions into voice control aren't excited about these findings, given AAA's 50-million-plus membership. Manufacturers are of the opinion that voice controls are less distracting than the alternative, which I'd describe as the lesser of two evils. Either way, it's a false sense of security. Using your voice for anything, even singing along, will divert your attention to some degree.
Then Chrysler said no to a NHTSA request to have 2.7 million Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys recalled because of highway-speed rear-impact fire risk. It was the first time since 1996 a manufacturer has said no, and it was also Chrysler back then. Chrysler said no defect, no recall. NHTSA says the vehicles are unsafe because the fuel tank is behind the rear axle, which could cause a fire in a collision. The agency also said multiple deaths were caused by this issue in the Grand Cherokee. The company disagreed with NHTSA's data analysis, saying the death rate from fires was not significantly higher than in other SUVs, finding higher death rates for more than 20 other SUV models that have not been recalled. It is plausible that some deaths resulted directly from a crash and not from subsequent fire. Driving at 60 mph into a parked car is violent. But if some bozo runs a motorbike under your truck at speed and the fuel tank leaks, is that the truck manufacturer's fault?
A recall would require an acknowledged problem and fix. It would set bad precedent that standards met at the time of manufacture could be changed retroactively. Imagine the costs if a vehicle government approved on best available knowledge 20 years ago required reengineering because knowledge has improved since then. These aren't simple software reflashes we're talking about. Could we apply that to politicians and administrators by recalling those who got it wrong on best-available information? Should we recall all those tank-under-driver Jeeps and Land Cruisers, or old pickups with in-cab tanks, where fumes or a cigarette could take you out? Would older trucks have to meet newer roof-crush standards if people keep rolling them? Do we recall every telephone pole because some break when a car hits one at 60 mph?
Indications are Chrysler could have prevailed in court. But within weeks, Chrysler and NHTSA agreed on a voluntary customer service action applied to a little more than half the original vehicle recall count. Chrysler will say no to the government, but not to bad PR, as no manufacturer wants to be seen as uncaring regarding customer safety. And at this writing there are no indications the ruckus has cost Jeep any shoppers or owners.
The CNG Acadia and X3 were two of six varied, not factory-built, vehicles assembled by a natural gas alliance to demonstrate alternative fuels. They could cover the "average daily drive" plug-in hybrids tout on CNG and run gasoline as range required, mostly transparent to the driver, and both retained the full cargo area. In my area, if I drove 20-35 miles a day, it would cut my fuel bill in half. There's no 300-mile CNG-under-bed pickup on the immediate horizon, but the status quo is changing every day.
Now back to CUE for the latest on Cue and the e-book price-fixing inquiry.