Larry Ellison wants to get into your car. But safety advocates are concerned about what might happen when software from his firm rides shotgun.

On Thursday,

Oracle

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announced it's working on applications that will allow motorists to tell their cars to check email, access corporate databases and even research customer information, all while driving, and have the information "read" back to them.

Driving Growth

Oracle is pushing its effort with

Wingcast

, a joint initiative of

Ford

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and

Qualcomm

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, formed to tap into a market dubbed "telematics." Telematics integrates wireless telecommunications and computing technology with automobiles and is projected to grow to a $42 billion market by 2010.

The companies say these capabilities will be installed in 2003 models from Ford and

Nissan

, and will hit the market in mid-2002. Users likely will sign up for a subscription-like package that will allow them to access the service inside the car as well as through other electronic devices outside the car.

General Motors

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already has been pushing its in-car

OnStar

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system for some time, though Oracle and Wingcap say their applications will trump that system with two-way capabilities.

"Virtually every application that Oracle makes is going to be voice-enabled and accessible from your automobile," Ellison said during a conference call to tout the new initiative. "With your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, you'll be able to, for example, receive new leads and opportunities, make new telephone calls and respectively link up with new customers."

Safety Debate

Driving safety advocates, who already have taken on cell-phone use in cars and won a major victory last month when New York prohibited the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, cried foul when presented with the idea of a rolling office on Thursday.

"Oh, that's absolutely frightening," says Patricia Pena, founder of

Advocates for Cell Phone Safety

, whose 2-year-old daughter was killed by a driver using a cell phone. "Do you want the driver of your children multitasking while he's behind the wheel?"

Ellison said a major focus of the initiative would be in bringing the firm's customer relationship management and sales force automation software to the automobile for salespeople who are constantly on the road. And, he said that because the systems will be built into the cars themselves, they'll be a safer alternative to current gadgets.

"I'd rather have a salesperson driving along listening to an email message and keeping his or her hands on the wheel and eyes on the road than messing around with a handheld cell phone or flipping through some papers beside him," Ellison says.

Harel Kodesh, CEO of Wingcast, said a driver's first responsibility is to operate the vehicle safely, and that his firm's products are designed to help do that, not cause distraction.

"We need to make sure the information and the services we build promote freedom so that people can access information through a multitude of devices. Drivers cannot be distracted. They need really to operate the vehicle as the first task," Kodesh said.

There is scant scientific evidence either way that the use of cell phones and other electronic devices while driving actually causes accidents. One study conducted at the

University of North Carolina

found that adjusting the CD player was much more likely to cause an accident than gabbing on a cell phone. That study has been derided, however, because it surveyed people who had been in accidents and who may have been wary to admit they were using a cell phone.

"You can have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, but if your mind is on your email, you're distracted," says Frances Bents, a former analyst with the

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

who studies crashes and cell phones for

Dynamic Science

, an Annapolis, Md., research firm. "Driving is an activity that requires vigilance and judgment. Neither of those is available to a driver whose mind is elsewhere."

That might describe a time-pressed salesman who's analyzing the buying trends of his biggest customer on the way to a must-close sales meeting. But Oracle's Ellison says his software will only help that person by making him feel more prepared and less rushed.

"Time will be saved, and safety will be served," Ellison says.

For Oracle's sake, and the safety of drivers everywhere, we can only hope.