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Volkswagen Routan: Driver Distraction and Chatty Navs

Last week, the New England Motor Press Association and MIT sponsored an excellent roundtable on in-car connectivity. One of the attendees asked the panelists why car companies couldn’t build a passenger-sensing system into their infotainment systems to allow for certain functions, like entering a destination into the navigation system or pairing a phone while the car was moving. The panelists all agreed that drivers would find a way around passenger sensors and perform the functions themselves, increasing driver distraction.

Fast forward to three days later, when I picked up the Volkswagen Routan for testing and sped toward the office, trying to make a meeting. Halfway there, I realized I wasn’t going to make it and would have to call in. Because handheld phone use is illegal where I was driving, I needed to connect my phone to the Routan’s Chrysler-supplied uConnect system. I hit the phone button, hoping the Routan would let me connect with voice commands. The Routan politely reminded me that the van was moving, and paring a phone while moving was unsafe. Then it asked me if I was a passenger. I then did what any self-respecting automotive journalist who cares deeply about distracted driving but had a meeting would do: I lied.

Those panelists know their stuff.

Aside from its uConnect’s system’s wink-wink attitude toward lying drivers, I noticed that the navigation voice commands were really chatty. It told me to keep left when I wasn’t going to exit, to go straight when I wasn’t turning, to prepare to turn and to get into the turning lane when I was. It was like driving with my mother. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it told me to sit up straight and get my bangs out of my eyes. I usually like a fair number of audio cues from a navigation system, but this was distracting.

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