January 25, 2010 - 4:59 pm
By Joel Gurin | Chief, Consumer & Governmental Affairs Bureau

This year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) looked a lot like an auto show. The show floor had a large area on in-vehicle technology with a lot of vehicles there to demonstrate it. Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, gave a keynote address describing the new Sync system that Ford is introducing, which you can view here, while Kia unveiled their competitive UVO system – covered by CNET here.

Both Sync and UVO are designed to provide all the different functions consumers might want in a car – not only GPS and sound, but also a number of Web-enabled applications – in an integrated unit. These companies, and others working on similar systems,  claim they can improve safety by making these units primarily voice-activated, and by eliminating the need to fiddle with a separate MP3 player, smart phone, and GPS. But at a time when distracted driving has become a major national issue, there are real safety concerns about having these screens in cars – summarized well in a recent New York Times article. While in-car Internet access can have safety benefits – for example, in reaching help in case of an accident – there’s clear cause for concern in having so many different options available on a dashboard screen.

Another issue is the growth of dashboard-mounted DVD players, available both from auto manufacturers and as after-market add-ons. These DVD players are legally supposed to be used only when the car is not moving, but it’s not clear why so many drivers would buy them if that were their only purpose. Even when these DVD players come with safety features that disable them when the car is in motion, drivers may try to override that safeguard.  Just search “front-seat DVD player override” online, as I just did, and see what advice you find (but please don’t follow any of it).

My own in-car entertainment is limited to the radio, my MP3 player, and audiobooks, which help keep me awake and focused on long drives. But younger drivers especially have different expectations for their automotive experience. At a CES session on bringing the Internet to the automobile, it was clear that the concept of the car as a full-fledged “infotainment” center has taken hold. One presenter cited a study showing that Generation Y drivers expect driving a car to be like playing a video game – maybe an overstatement, but frightening nonetheless.

At the FCC, we’re very concerned about the problem of distracted driving, which some believe could soon be the leading cause of driving deaths in America. We’re working on this issue with the Department of Transportation, which has taken strong leadership in addressing it. We’re also encouraged to see the consumer electronics industry beginning to show its concern, and to see innovative companies developing new applications and devices to minimize driver distractions. New products and services can let you access your email by voice rather than typing on a smartphone; disable your cell phone and send automated email responses while you’re driving; and in other ways reduce cognitive distractions while on the road.

We believe that solving the problem of distracted driving requires a combination of education, law enforcement, behavioral change, and innovation. You can access our resources on distracted driving, including a workshop we held in November 2009, at the CGB section of FCC.gov.  And we welcome your ideas on the best ways to address this important issue.