Updated from 11:20 a.m. EST
The "information highway" will no longer be a metaphor used by politicians to update their self-image.
announced plans Wednesday to put voice-activated wireless Internet and phone service in Lincoln luxury cars, virtually recreating scenes from the science-fiction movie
Government agencies and insurers voiced anxiety, not exultation, over the added distractions for drivers.
Some new Lincoln models will be equipped with information services including news, sports, weather and stock quotes as well as voice-activated calling on Motorola StarTAC phones and emergency and roadside assistance. Ford would not specify which models would initially get the Sprint package, but it plans to offer the service in all its car lines in a couple of years.
All of this service will be free initially, Ford said in the conference call. But after a certain period users will be charged about $9 a month. The prices and service options will vary from model to model, Ford said.
The financial arrangement between the two companies is not an equity relationship but a "strategic partnership," according to Brian Kelley, president of Ford's
and vice president of
. The companies would not disclose how revenues would be shared from the venture.
Shares of Ford rose 3 1/6, or 7%, to close at 44 1/16 Wednesday, while Sprint PCS fell 1 3/8, or 2%, to 57 5/8.
But all services will not be created equal across all models. The Jaguar owner, Kelley said in the conference call, will be offered different services than the Ford Focus owner.
"There will be some services we won't want in front of the driver," Kelley said. "We will not want streaming video in front of the driver ... How we work with getting the visuals in front of the driver is going to be crucial."
Farther down the road, Sprint PCS expects to offer full voice-activated access to the Web, email, schedules and other conveniences.
While the companies are excited about Internet-capable cars, government agencies like the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
, a division of the
Department of Transportation
, will be on alert.
The agency took a dim view of risks associated with cell phones in a report from January 1998. "As cars more and more become an extension of the home and office, we are creating a whole new array of potentially hazardous distractions that must be better understood," NHTSA administrator Ricardo Martinez, M.D. said in the report.
The study reports that as many as half of all crashes are caused by driver inattention. Through an in-car video monitoring system, NHTSA has been collecting data on pre-crash factors, which include the general area of driver inattention and specifically address cellular telephone use as a causal factor.
While the initial costs of the service appear innocuous, the hidden cost could come from auto insurers.
Steve Goldstein a spokesman for the
Insurance Information Institute
, a trade organization, said the use of the Internet and other devices in cars could lead to higher insurance premiums in the future. "If we find out that years from now this is causing accidents then it could cause a rate increase, but it's too early to tell. If this becomes standard on all vehicles, then we'd have to look at it closer. But I think people would pay more for that risk."
"The use of the automobile has definitely changed," he said. "The real purpose of a car is getting from point A to point B. But there's no end to what people want in their cars. If it gets to the point where your searching for stock prices, it's too much to ask from driver."
The problem is that the more distracted a driver is, the more likely that driver will be involved in an accident, Goldstein said.
"This is certainly an issue we'd look at," said Jim Dudas, an
spokesman. "But I have no idea how to rate that stuff because it's so new." Dudas added that the company encourages people not to use their cell phones while driving.
Phil Supple, a spokesman for
, thinks the insurance question will be answered on a local basis. "Each state's department of insurance may want to weigh in on what distractions that may cause. I don't want to speculate."
Supple said the insurance company was still dissecting the issue of cell phones. Regarding the use of cell phones in cars, Supple said, "We, to date, have not seen claims data that we can make a policy from. We're still gathering data evaluating claims."