A few years ago, Dr. Bell was thinking about one particular end user: the car owner. If the marketing is to be believed, cars are no longer just transportation devices, but mobile entertainment systems. Ford promotes its “Sync” in-car infotainment system with slogans like “Drive Connected,” “Drive Personally” and “Drive Entertained.” Audi bills its latest built-in wireless system as the “connected car future,” with smoother digital maps, faster downloads and, someday soon, the ability to exchange data with “parking garages and other connected cars.”
Dr. Bell has never been much impressed by such idealized visions of technology. So when those notions start to settle into conventional wisdom — like the car as a superconnected entertainment-and-communication bubble — she wants to kick the tires, so to speak. This urge is not just contrarianism. If Intel wanted to innovate for its automaker clients, Dr. Bell believed, the company would need to better understand how real people shifted back and forth between built-in technologies and the personal devices they carried into their cars.
So Dr. Bell and Alexandra Zafiroglu, a fellow Intel anthropologist, set off on an expedition. They traveled around the world, examining, logging and photographing the contents of people’s cars.
In a typical encounter, the pair found themselves in an underground parking lot in Singapore, where a man named Frank had agreed to let them scour his new white Volvo S.U.V. They searched his car methodically from the glove compartment to the trunk, removing each object they found and placing it on a beige shower curtain that they had spread out next to his car.
Soon, the plastic curtain was covered with all manner of tech gear: iPods, calculators, a Bluetooth headset, a collection of CDs and DVDs, remote controls for the car’s DVD players, wireless headphones and a detachable GPS system, plus manuals for all of the electronics. There were also personal items: umbrellas, golf clubs, credit cards, toys, candy, hand sanitizer, a small Buddha given to Frank by his mother, and an anti-slip pad on which the Buddha rested. When they had finished the car excavation, Dr. Bell climbed up a stepladder and photographed the spread.
As they traveled from country to country, asking drivers about how they used every object in their cars, the pair developed a messier counternarrative to the tech-idealized version. Although carmakers have embedded voice-command systems and the like in their vehicles with the idea of reducing distracted driving, the researchers found that when drivers were bored in traffic, they often picked up their hand-held personal devices anyway.
“What became clear was a couple of things: how much technology people bring to cars, how much they were ignoring the technology that was built in, and how much that technology was failing them,” Dr. Bell says.
This more grounded, nuanced view of driver behavior served as a reality check for Intel and its clients. Last fall, Intel announced a collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover to develop, among other things, better ways for consumers to sync their personal devices with their cars. Intel has a similar effort with Toyota, to develop user-interaction systems involving voice, gesture and touch.
The goal is to make built-in technology more seamless and supersede a driver’s reflex to reach for a hand-held device.”