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Facebooking from the driver's seat? Not so fast

June 1, 2011 - 03:10 PM
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Will the increasing amounts of "distracting gadgetry" in America's cars drive people off the road? That's what U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has suggested, and he has the power to put the technological distractions on hold if the government judges them a safety risk. As the Wall Street Journal reported today:

"There's absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview. "It's not necessary."

Mr. LaHood is pushing to open new fronts in his long-running campaign against the proliferation of technology-driven diversions. In conversations with industry chief executives, Mr. LaHood says he is making it plain he isn't pleased with the trend toward putting more media feeds and gadgetry into the cockpits of new vehicles.

Mr. LaHood and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports to him, have the power to curb the info-tainment technology built into cars if they can demonstrate a threat to safety. He is also urging auto executives to free up advertising money to create public-service announcements that remind motorists to stay focused on the road, and not to text and drive.

But is the expanding field of infotainment tech actually so dangerous?

Certain automobile manufacturers such as BMW have come out against driver distractions such as texting while driving, as in the BMW commercial highlighted by the Journal and shown below, but the automotive industry as a whole has moved toward developing more interactive, dynamic, and connected telematics strategies for their cars. More than 60 million cars worldwide could be equipped with these smart, new features, which allow drivers and riders to receive in-depth real-time data about the state of their cars, road conditions, their surroundings, and to connect with applications such as Facebook, Twitter, or other Internet-based locations as they cruise. These elements are also, it should be noted, consciously integrated into the driving experience and should be distinguished from careless texting while driving. Yet both instances show how technology distracts a driver from paying attention to the road, which is true whether it's having one eye on Facebook updates or one eye on incoming text messages.

Many of these infotainment features don't, of course, have to involve the vehicle's driver. Earlier this year, Volvo released a new car that would allow "backseat passengers [to] surf the Web, check e-mail, listen to music, and watch TV and movies," according to CNET News. These wireless and GPS features have run up against political pressures elsewhere in the world. Brazil initially mandated that cars be manufactured with GPS features for security reasons, for instance, but ran up against popular outcry from citizens who feared the government would track them.

On the infotainment front, however, automakers look more toward fun than security concerns. Toyota's new venture called Friend, developed with Microsoft and with promotion costs already at $12 million, hopes to create an interactive system akin to Facebook and Twitter for the modern vehicle, according to one article. Friend "aims to create a system of instant message-like communications between the driver, the car, the dealer and the factory through the use of smartphones, tablet computers or desktop PCs." The Journal points to the Facebook features that GM is developing, which the company hopes will satisfy government safety concerns:

"General Motors Co.—still part-owned by the government—is promoting its youth-targeted Chevrolet Cruze compact with an ad that highlights a Facebook-update feature, delivered by a voice program through the car's Onstar communication system. "

A GM spokesman says Onstar's Facebook application, which drivers can use with a push of one button while they keep their eyes on the road, is still in the "beta" test phase. No decision has been made to roll it out broadly.

Whether GM will retain control over that decision remains to be seen. LaHood hopes to have guidelines on infotainment technology by early next year.

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