Weekly Brief: Tik Tok goes a Time Bomb for Driver Distraction

Tik Tok is one of the most popular social media platforms on the planet, famous for turning no-names into viral sensations in 15 seconds flat.

Now the app is on to its next frontier: the dashboard of your automobile. Mercedes-Benz announced last week that its 2024 E-Class will be the first car to feature full Tik Tok integration [Mercedes obviously happy not sell any cars for US government employees, agencies or contractors because the platform is now banned for government devices in 32 of the 50 states – Ed].

Drivers will be able to download Tik Tok directly from the touch-activated home screen without the aid of a third-party intermediary like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The front and rear screens in the vehicle will work independently, allowing drivers and passengers to log into separate accounts and For You feeds. Those without accounts will be able to browse TikTok’s top content.

There are a few caveats, however. The app will only work when the E-Class is parked and users will only be able to view posts rather than create their own content. Other apps will be available as well, most notably Angry Birds and Zoom the latter of which will allow drivers to turn the cockpits of their cars into conference rooms. A small in-dash camera will enable video function. As with Tik Tok, the app will only work when the vehicle is stationary. Mercedes-Benz says that it hopes to allow users to make and post their own content on Tik Tok soon and that some apps will work while the vehicle is in motion. The E-Class will include a separate tablet screen for the front seat passenger, which will supposedly be shielded from the driver’s view when the vehicle is moving.

In some respects, you can’t blame Mercedes-Benz. The future of the automobile appears to be an entertainment center on wheels, with all driving functionality reserved for autonomous technology. In this reality, the ability of the dashboard to show viral Tik Tok videos, conduct video conferences, and take cool pictures and selfies, which the camera on the E-Class can do, is more important than telling speed or direction or what gear the vehicle is in.

The problem is that we haven’t reached that future yet, not by a long shot. Turning cars into entertainment centers on wheels therefore comes with real risks for carmakers, drivers, passengers and the general public, since drivers still need to focus on the core task of driving. Allowing apps to only function while a vehicle is stationary partially addresses these risks but it’s a slippery slope, especially if passengers can continue to access content and browse built-in web browsers – on a front seat tablet no less.

One could argue that drivers are going to be distracted anyway; after all, they have smartphones in their pockets and may be viewing Tik Tok while their vehicles are in motion, let alone stationary. This is true but I would counter that most of those drivers know that they shouldn’t be doing this, that texting and driving is dangerous, just look at all the billboards and the advertisements saying as much, whereas when a carmaker officially endorses an activity and seamlessly integrates it into the user experience, it changes the perception.

Just look at Tesla. Elon Musk has made a fortune by falsely advertising his cars’ self-driving capabilities. Many of his customers have thus bought into these messages, which has led to Tesla drivers dying while watching a Harry Potter movie on their dashboard, for instance, or slamming into emergency responders because Tesla’s Autopilot is seemingly unable to identify ambulances and fire trucks parked in breakdown lanes. This past weekend brought news of yet another horrific wreck in which a Tesla driver in Contra Costa County, California, slammed into a fire truck and died on the spot. The firefighters were treated for minor injuries. It hasn’t been confirmed that Autopilot was engaged and entertainment was playing on the dashboard at the time of the accident but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tesla got away with this odious behavior for a while but things may finally be changing after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently ordered the carmaker to recall almost 400,000 vehicles owing to the failings and false advertisement of Autopilot Beta. Mercedes would prefer to avoid this type of scrutiny and negative publicity but, clearly, it’s a risk the carmaker is willing to take. For more on Mercedes’s new operating system, check out Paul Myles’ reporting here.

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