Will a vibrating seat make me a better driver before driving me insane?
As I inched down a narrow alley a block and a half from my home, I felt it for the first time. The seat in the Chevrolet Tahoe I was driving was vibrating. Imagine sitting on half a dozen smartphones all set to vibrate, and all receiving calls at the same time. That was the feeling.
I couldn't help but smile.
After all, this was what I signed up for. When Chevrolet offered to let me spend a few days driving the Tahoe, I said yes. I wanted to experience its collision-avoidance technology for myself. Could it really make our roads safer?
A year and a half ago, I was sitting at a red light in Washington, when something caught my eye in the rearview mirror. I'll never forget glancing up and seeing a Mercedes-Benz logo hurtling toward me. Before I could react, my car was smashed into the intersection.
I clasped the steering wheel to try to steady myself as my body ricocheted back and forth between the seat and the grasp of my seat belt. I pulled over to the side of the road, luckily not getting hit by anyone else.
It happened so fast, a violent and unnerving experience.
Ultimately I was okay - thank you, seat belt - but I was reminded of the risks of driving. Car accidents change lives and takes lives. Motor vehicle accidents kill more than 30,000 Americans a year.
Sure, there's optimistic talk of self-driving cars taking the steering wheel out of our hands, and saving lives in the process. But lots of hurdles remain.
In the short term, plenty of automakers are thinking about how to make human drivers betters. Hence, I found myself in that narrow alley with a vibrating seat. Sensors on the Tahoe detect imminent threats. Because I was so close to the rowhouses that bracket the alley, the entire seat vibrated.
It's a unique way to get a driver's attention. What if the driver of the SUV that rear-ended me had a vibrating seat? Maybe she brakes and never hits me? Or why not program every car to automatically brake when a collision is imminent? What if vibrating seats woke up every driver who falls asleep at the wheel?
Although the seat was a neat novelty at first, I soon felt a lot different.
On my second day with the Tahoe, I made a long drive into D.C.'s suburbs. Once the vehicle exceeds 35 mph, its lane-departure warning system kicks in. If I started to a drift to the right side of my lane, the right side of the seat would vibrate. If I drifted to the left side, the left side of the seat would vibrate.
The technology relies on a camera behind the windshield that identifies road markings. The idea is to give drivers a private and subtle alert.
"The person joining you in the right-hand seat maybe doesn't need to say, 'You got beeped again!' " explained John Capp, director of safety strategies and vehicle programs at General Motors.
On paper, this sounds like a great thing. But behind the wheel, it was quickly a nuisance. I resisted the urge to turn the feature off. After all, I had a story to write. I spoke with Capp after my test drive, and he acknowledged the annoyance factor.
"There's definitely driving situations where you wouldn't always want it on," he said. "Let's say you're driving a curvy or country road at 40 or 50 mph and there's no traffic on it. Sometimes when we drive on curvy country roads with no traffic on it we may cut the line a little bit or cut the center line a little bit. You may drift a little bit to the outside. It doesn't mean you're driving unsafe."
Sure, the seat was annoying, but I also think it made me a better driver. Deftly maneuvering an SUV as big as the Tahoe isn't easy. As my seat buzzed on the right or left side, it made me more aware of actions. I did a better job of staying in my lane.
The Tahoe also had a feature to grab drivers' attention if they were about to rear-end someone. Red lights would be projected onto the windshield in the driver's field of vision. I never triggered this warning, despite delaying my braking a few times to try to trigger the lights.
Leveraging technology to make us safer is great. And the vibrating seat works. But I can't help but imagine that most of us would turn it off rather than endure the inconvenience to make our roads a bit safer.