Skip to main content

Look at the central console of any new car and you’ll probably find a convenient place to put a phone.Zephyr18/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Our addiction to our phones is ruining – or at the very least changing for the worse – concerts, middle school, dinner conversation, our ability to sleep, the way our brains work and now, inevitably, our cars.

It’s sad but true that almost every feature in new cars is, intentionally or not, enabling our smartphone addiction. From automatic emergency braking to Apple CarPlay to USB outlets to phone-sized cupholders, cars are encouraging our bad habits.

Once upon a time, the automobile was our favourite gadget, our most prized possession. Now it’s that fancy new phone. (Car? Who that?) The latest Google Pixel phone has a radar chip that can detect movement and a face-recognition feature so, like a puppy, it knows when its human is close. The first thing many people see in the morning is their phone, and it’s the last thing they see before going to sleep. We’re so addicted that even mentioning how addicted we are immediate elicits eye-rolls from everyone. It’s lame to even talk about it. (Sorry.)

Consider the cupholder. As much as we love the 7-Eleven Big Gulp and that Tim Hortons travel mug that’s as big as a paint can, we love our phones more. The cupholder, a sacred place once reserved for caffeine and sugar receptacles, has been annexed by an even more addictive drug: smartphones. In many new cars, cupholders are designed to hold phones in addition to cups because people just can’t keep them in their pockets, not even while driving.

Look at the central console of any new car and you’ll probably find a convenient place to put a phone. That spot will have a USB socket or maybe even a wireless charger to keep your phone juiced while you’re stuck in traffic.

You’d never leave home without your phone, of course. Your car keys, though? They are becoming forgettable now that Lincoln, Hyundai, BMW, Volvo and other automakers already (or soon will) allow drivers to unlock and start their cars with a smartphone.

In an effort to compete for our love and attention, car dashboards have sprouted phones of their own. Supersized central touchscreens are a key selling point on every new car, from bargain-basement to high-end. The screens let drivers keep up with the firehose of notifications from their phones. Text messages pop up on the in-car screen. You can get an alert when a new e-mail or Facebook message comes in, as well as real-time updates on traffic, weather and gas prices.

Tech companies are on a quest to dominate every screen in your life, including the one in your car. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto ensure you never have to put down your favourite apps, not even while cruising at 100 km/h. For advertising platforms such as Google and Facebook, cars are a treasure trove of valuable data about their drivers.

You like playing video games on your phone? Tesla has put video games right inside your car. The new Arcade function lets drivers play classic games – Asteroids, Centipede – on the in-car screen, albeit only when the car is parked. Yet it’s all too easy (and all too horrifying) to imagine irresponsible drivers playing games while stopped at a traffic light. Bad idea, Tesla.

Worst of all, phones have made us less capable as drivers. We’re so addicted to our phones that it’s killing people. Driver distraction was a contributing factor to an estimated 21 per cent of fatal collisions and 27 per cent of serious-injury collisions in 2016, according to Transport Canada data.

Level 2 driver-assistance systems – such as automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection, lane-keeping assist and adaptive cruise control – are meant as a last-resort backup in case you make a mistake behind the wheel. But unfortunately, they also provide distracted drivers with a false sense of safety. Roughly one-quarter of drivers thought talking on a cellphone was safe in cars with Level 2 assistance systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot, according to a study by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found. For the record: It’s not safe. It’s illegal.

Phones have fundamentally altered the driving experience. The view from the driver’s seat of a new car is starting to resemble the console of NASA Mission Control. Faced with all these screens, driving a new car feels more like controlling an operating system rather than a fast machine.

When self-driving cars do arrive, we will finally be able to surf the ‘net and update our Instagram feed non-stop while speeding down the highway. That’s the future we’re heading toward, but is that really what we want? Or will we lament the days when cars, as crude as they were, at least provided a brief respite from our smartphone addiction?

Stay on top of all our Drive stories. We have a Drive newsletter covering car reviews, innovative new cars and the ups and downs of everyday driving. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct