Auto Screen Overload: Is There Too Much Tech in Cars?

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In a column for Automotive News, Larry P. Vellequette risks getting labeled as a cranky old-fashioned fuddy-duddy by calling for a halt to the arms race for more and more video screens in cars. In the column, which he presumably punched out on a typewriter while wearing acid wash jeans before faxing it in to his editors, Vellequette writes that when a vehicle has four or more screens inside, it’s not only overkill, it’s also expensive and dangerous.

According to Vellequette:

Each screen is likely to cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to replace as new vehicles age and their screens lose pixels or malfunction, as all electronics are prone to do over time.

But the bigger cost may come from the added injuries and lives likely to be lost as drivers have more images and sound to steal their attention from the road.

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Another column, published a few weeks ago in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, also voiced concerns about drivers being distracted by a fully teched-out vehicle:

If I were a parent, I wouldn’t want to run the risk of my child getting harmed because of an 8-inch touch screen.

What’s particularly interesting about the above column is that it was written by a sophomore in high school. The Chicago Tribune cited the somewhat unsurprising survey data showing that, by far, it’s the peers of this op-ed writer who are most interested in having the latest technology in cars:

A 2011 study for business consultants Deloitte showed that less than half of baby boomers wanted to be able to connect a smart phone and applications from a dashboard interface. Over two-thirds of the youngest respondents (Gen Y) wanted that convenience.

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Gen Y drivers were also more likely to want touch screen control functions in their cars. It’s unclear who, exactly, is demanding four or more screens in their vehicles.

While many drivers embrace the spread of connectivity and technology in cars, the reality of late is that some of the upgrades may cause more problems than they provide solutions. Consumer complaints regarding auto, entertainment, and navigation systems have risen for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, largely because new tech in cars hasn’t been working as promised.

What’s also interesting is that the people who get most excited about video screens, apps, and smartphone connectivity in cars are among the least likely consumers to be buying cars. They may not even drive.

A Businessweek story offers the latest on the much-discussed trend of young people viewing cars as unnecessary, even “uncool.”. In April, just 11% of auto purchases were made by Americans ages 18 to 34, down from 17% in April of 2007. The percentage of teenagers with driver’s licenses has plummeted, with less than half of 17-year-olds bothering to get them in 2008. Even folks in their 20s are less likely to be drivers: In 2010, 81% of Americans ages 20 to 24 had driver’s licenses, down from 92% in 1983.

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One of the reasons frequently mentioned explaining why young people are less likely to be buying cars, or even driving at all, is the rise of the Internet, social media, and technology in general. As Joe Vitale, an automotive consultant with Deloitte, told BW, “A vehicle is really a discretionary purchase and a secondary need versus an iPhone, mobile phone or personal computer.”

Student loan debt and the awful state of the jobs market for young people have also made it nearly impossible for members of Gen Y to afford new cars—that is, if they truly wanted them. The situation is one in which young consumers prefer gadgets over cars. If they are interested in cars, they prefer cars with gadgets in them far more than older drivers, a.k.a., the people who are more far more likely to actually be buying new cars.

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As for how members of Gen Y get around, the BW piece notes that they “have settled on used models or alternatives to driving” such as public transportation, car sharing, bikes, or their own two feet. It seems as if, for now at least, few of the drivers who want the most technology in their cars actually own, or are even capable of affording, cars with the most technology.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.