Drive, Talk and Surf? Automakers Push In-Car Tech Despite Dangers

By Kathleen Culliton

NEW YORK ( Minyanville) -- While texting in transport provides web-procrastinators endless amusement (thank you viral video star Bonnie Miller, your phone, and Lake Michigan), it's also generally agreed that on-the-road smartphone use has become the biggest threat to automobile safety since New Orleans introduced the drive-through Daiquiri shop.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway and Safety Administration reported that in one year, more than 5,000 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in crashes that involved distracted driving.

If United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood had his way, there would be legal limits on the amount of permissible dashboard buttons, a Web access ban and restrictions on GPS device access. In February of this year, LaHood introduced his three-part "federal proposal" of suggestions for automakers to help curb distraction potential. The voluntary guidelines include ensuring that one hand is always left free for steering, restricting the entry of text when the car is in motion, and limiting dashboard text prompts to 30 characters. The LaHood guidelines promote a less-is-more approach to securing driver safety.
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The auto industry has something else in mind.

At the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show, major car makers like Audi ( NSU.DE), Chrysler ( F.MI), General Motors ( GM), Ford ( F), Kia ( KIA) and Mercedes ( DAI.DE) all exhibited vehicles with designs specifically centered on the incorporation of modern technology into the driving experience, much of it rendering texting-while-driving bans moot.

Audi's new three-screen dashboard display gives drivers access to information such as speed and next-turn navigation while the passenger screen displays anything from movies to restaurant reviews. Car and Driver reports that the third screen (in the center) is gesture controlled, which allows the passenger to share information -- directions to nearby restaurants and hotels -- with the driver.

Ford's Sync App Link allows drivers to import content from their phones into the car's own display. And Mercedes-Benz DriveStyle app will do the same. "We can't stop people bringing phones in their cars," Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer at Ford, told the New York Times, "We endeavor to make sure people do it in the safest way possible."

But whether or not safety is auto manufacturers' primary concern is unclear. Representatives from CES told Minyanville that currently only 15% of U.S. households own automobiles with communication and entertainment technology, yet in 2011 they managed to spend approximately $6 billion in wholesale industry dollars for in-vehicle technology. CES predicts that as the auto industry makes in-car technology available in a wider range of models, this number will only rise. Incorporating smartphones, MP3 players, and tablets into the automobile is going to be lucrative.

Greed is not the only force at play here. There are many auto safety experts who champion the auto industry's innovations in auto-technology. One of them is Russ Rader, senior vice president of communication at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"The main push against distracted driving has been to restrict various kinds of phones use and to ban texting while driving," Rader told Minyanville. "But research shows that those laws have not reduced crashes...and electronic devices aren't the only things that distract drivers."

So if legislation isn't the answer, perhaps technology is?

It's possible. Rader believes in the potential of safety technology to help cancel out the effects of media distractions. There are already tools being developed to assist in auto collision avoidance, prevent lane drift, assist in parking, monitor speed and detect driver drowsiness. And Google ( GOOG) is fast on its way to developing the driverless car; developed with artificial intelligence software, Google Street View technology, radar sensors and video cameras to navigate traffic. Test drives have been quite successful, so it is conceivable that some day drivers won't have to choose between being connected and being safe.

There's just one hitch. The January edition of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Status Report estimated that it will take three decades for the promising safety features to become universal enough to have an impact. Think of it this way: what's the point of having a car with auto collision avoidance if no one else does? Meanwhile, the industry continues to push as much technology into the hands of drivers as they legally can. Can those drivers be trusted not to drive into Lake Michigan until 2042?

--Written by Kathleen Culliton of Minyanville.