Web-Enabled Cars: Drive to Disaster?

"Unless you're stopped in a traffic jam, I don't see any basis for doing that. I think it's a disaster," says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

The concern grows just as Internet-enabled cars are getting ready to hit the roads.

Ford Motor Company showcased its 24.7 concept vehicles in January, although the company hasn't announced any models or release dates. General Motors will start offering its MyOnStar Virtual Advisor as an option in new vehicles this summer. (See Internal Links at right for more details.) Neither Ford nor GM is encouraging drivers to use keyboards, mice, or monitors on the road. Both Virtual Advisor and 24.7 provide voice-based interfaces. For instance, Virtual Advisor will simply respond to your vocal commands by reading your e-mail and other data you request out loud (you have to set it up first on a computer back at the office). That way, you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.

Look, No Hands!

But is even hands-off data retrieval safe? Driving a car while talking on a hands-free phone is just as dangerous as using a standard handset, according to a recent study by the University of Toronto. Research found that even using a hands-free phone while driving is about four times as dangerous not using a phone at all.

Not everyone agrees with these conclusions. Sara Tatchio, a safety manager for public affairs at Ford, considers the Toronto study flawed.

"Everybody who was in that study had been in accidents," Tatchio says. "The numbers are very hard to define that way."

But other studies point in a similar direction. According to a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Driver inattention is the most frequently cited precrash condition for drivers who use cellular telephones."

Inattention concerns the mind, not the hands or eyes, safety advocates note. Inattention isn't affected by the type of phone you use.

Nevertheless, products such as MyOnStar Virtual Advisor will improve the current road scene cruised by distracted drivers, says Todd Carstensen, manager of communications for MyOnStar, the General Motors venture.

"People are already bringing laptops into cars and plugging them into dashboard lights," Carstensen says. "If we can bring similar information through a single [voice-based] interface, we feel we will make it safer."

In the end, safety depends on the driver. American Automobile Association spokesperson Bronwyn Hogan points out that "the motorist is, for all intents and purposes, responsible for his or her safety."

So, when might it be safe to access data while driving? "Off the top of my head, it's best when the car is not in motion," Hogan says. But in the end, we may soon have more digital temptations on the road and more opportunity to decide how to handle them.

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