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The Latest No-No in Your Car: Vacuuming While Driving

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NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: The new Honda 2014 Odyssey minivan, equipped with a built-in vacuum cleaner, is displayed at the 2013 New York International Auto Show on March 27, 2013 in New York City. The New York Auto Show will open to the public on Friday and run until April 7. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cars aren’t just for driving any more. We eat, drink, jabber and entertain ourselves in our autos — just like at home — and often create the same kind of mess found on the couch after munching chips and playing Xbox.

Honda has come up with the next ingenious gizmo that allows your car to mimic your living room: a built-in vacuum that runs off the car’s electrical system and eliminates the need to drive to the car wash for a vacuum, or run an extension cord from the house. The HondaVac, which debuts this year as an option on the new Odyssey minivan, was the brainchild of a 10-year-old girl who noticed the detritus in the family minivan one day and said, “You know what we need in here, Dad? A vacuum cleaner.” Her Dad happened to be a Honda engineer, who took the "no-duh" idea to work, allowing Honda to roll out the most clever-but-obvious automotive innovation since the cupholder.

I recently spent a week test-driving the HondaVac (along with the Odyssey it was installed in), and one of the first joyful surprises was the enthusiasm my teenage kids showed for the vac. Credit the gizmo factor: If it has buttons and makes noise, kids are interested. But the enthusiasm quickly died as we realized the vac wouldn’t work while we were moving, which meant my kids had to find something else to keep them busy during a boring road trip. And once we got home, they ran off, for some reason, before I could put them to work sucking up dirt.

Honda deliberately designed the vac so it works only when the transmission is in park. It’s not against the law to vacuum while driving (yet), but the automaker figured drivers don’t need yet another distraction when they’re supposed to have their eyes on the road. It would also prefer that passengers in the rear seats stay buckled in rather than unbuckling their belts to reach in the back and haul out the vacuum. “There’s no benefit to vacuuming while you’re driving,” says Kerry McClure, Honda’s chief engineer for the 2014 Odyssey. “It’s just not something we want to promote.”

A golden era

It’s kind of a golden era for vehicle designers these days, as there’s so much new technology available to install in cars, turning them into mobile multimedia hotspots. Automakers such as Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus and Mercedes now offer a cellular connection straight to the car itself (no phone required), which basically brings the entire Internet to the dashboard. Other new systems mirror the user’s smartphone on an in-dash touchscreen, allowing access to all the apps you carry in your pocket. And automakers seem certain to copy the HondaVac, while exploring what other types of household appliances might be useful in cars. Coffeemaker? Hair dryer? Printer? (Tip: Don't be fooled if you come across news of the "HondaHair" in-car grooming kit, published last April 1.)

All that gizmology is creating a safety problem, however. Distracted driving causes about 3,300 vehicle deaths per year and 421,000 injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Teenage drivers, not surprisingly, are most at risk of crashing while distracted. While both the total number and the rate of U.S. traffic fatalities have been falling during the past several years, accidents involving distraction appear to be on the rise.

Mobile phones are one obvious reason. At any given moment, 660,000 drivers are talking on the phone, texting or using some kind of electronic gadget, according to NHTSA. But new technology is hardly the only thing that takes drivers’ attention off the road. A study from earlier this year by Erie Insurance found that being “lost in thought” —  otherwise known as daydreaming — accounted for 62% of fatal crashes linked to distraction. Cell-phone use — including both talking and texting — accounted for just 12%. Other causes of fatal distraction include rubbernecking, fiddling with radio dials or other controls, eating and drinking, reaching for something in the car, interacting with passengers, reacting to a pet or a bug in the cabin, and smoking.

Honda is determined to keep vacuuming off that list, so I can only report on my impressions of the HondaVac while parked in the driveway. The vacuum works with the engine off or on, though suction is stronger when the van is running. It comes with a crevice tool and a wider carpet attachment that stow out of sight when not being used. The vacuum hose reaches every spot in the interior and is probably long enough to vacuum another car in the driveway. When the canister gets full, you just snap it out, dump it, and slide it back in.

You may not be able to persuade your kids to do the job for you, but the HondaVac will make cleaning the family hauler a little easier, anyway.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success . Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman .

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