For years, a major topic at the Consumer Electronics Show has been the increasing sophistication of in-car electronics. Six-speaker sound systems and GPS mapping were only the beginning. New cars today are often available with options that provide news, entertainment, communication, route planning, and safety – all enabled by wireless broadband. Many auto manufacturers are pushing the envelope of car connectivity. For instance, General Motors has the prototype EN-V – a tiny concept car that can use broadband to navigate itself and that comes when you call it from your smartphone.
At a standing-room-only session at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attendees heard from a roster of companies that are now providing apps for cars. OnStar, a pioneer in the field, is growing its paid-subscription service to provide vehicle security and safety. Pandora, which millions of people already use for a personalized radio experience, is seeking to become as easy to use in your car as it is on your laptop or smartphone. Other companies are specializing in speech recognition, in-car systems integration, and other approaches to make a range of automotive conveniences seamless and safe.
As impressive and enjoyable as this technology can be, there's a clear potential downside: Driver distraction. We're still trying to figure out how to deal with the problem of texting and driving, a deadly trend that both government and industry are fighting together. The Department of Transportation is leading the Federal effort, CTIA launched a teen safe driving initiative, and the FCC hosted a workshop and developed an information clearinghouse on distracted driving. Now these mitigation efforts are further complicated by the increasing range of electronic options that tempt drivers to take their eyes minds off the road.
The good news is that the auto industry is recognizing the risk, more openly than when these innovations were presented at CES a year ago. One auto executive on the apps-for-cars panel put it bluntly: "If we don't do our job well in our space, we can introduce things that can kill people." In a session on driver distraction and safety, CES brought together David Strickland, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, with experts who have monitored the behavior of drivers and the behavior of cars (a field called telematics) to analyze the problem and find solutions.
While this is still a controversial area, the speakers at CES generally agreed on a few key points that suggest the challenges that still lay in front of us. First, many believe that straightforward bans on texting while driving will not have the hoped-for effect. We have now become so used to living wired lives that it's hard to give up connectivity in the car; as one speaker said, tongue in cheek, "driving is starting to get in the way of our social networking." Second, it's clear that broadband connectivity, with all the apps that it brings, is coming to most cars, and that consumers will increasingly demand it. And third, all this innovation must be managed safely for the good of consumers and of the industry itself. A wake-up call came last week when Consumer Reports denied its Recommended designation to two Ford vehicles because of their distracting voice-and-touchscreen systems.
Several major auto companies are putting their engineers to work to make their cars safe, as well as connected and entertaining. Ford is continually improving its Sync system, a popular option now available in all its vehicles, which uses voice commands to provide music, podcasts, and directions with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The high-end Mercedes M-Brace system uses voice commands and telematics to provide phone connectivity, entertainment, and safety and security protections. Other automakers are taking similar approaches to the new world of car electronics.
All these advances will provide new options for car buyers – and new challenges for policymakers concerned about auto safety. What do you look for in a car, and what are your views on safety and driver distraction? Please add a comment to let us know.