Safety last? The conundrum of connected cars

U.S. car makers, reinvigorated after their near-death experience, are adding the latest consumer electronics to their new models as a way to boost profits, a fact that The Wall Street Journal attributed to new-found confidence that the federal government will not regulate these “infotainment” incursions.

The Big Three and their overseas rivals all converged at last months’ Consumer Electronics Show and Detroit Auto Show to show off their efforts, as GigaOM reported at the time.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which has hosted a distracted driving summit for the past two years, will not hold the event this year, a sign that the issue is not a priority and which has emboldened the auto makers to forge ahead, according to the Journal.

This in-car infotainment deluge comes despite the fact that a driver who texts (or is otherwise distracted) is 23 times more likely to crash, according to The National Transportation Board, which posts such data to its website. Other distractions include: reading on-board GPS systems, adjusting the radio or watching a video.

While the consumer electronics and software companies at these events were careful to stress their reliance on  hands-free operation, the fact remains that the automobile is looking more and more like a home entertainment center.  The Journal said the automakers have used these hands-free features to say that using in-dash systems is safer than manipulating their cell phones to make calls or text.

As Michael Sprague, marketing director at Kia Motors’ North American division, told The Journal: 

 ”Consumers are going to continue to drive with phones and all we can do as a manufacturer is to provide what the consumers are asking for and make it as safe as possible.”

This contention between infotainment and safety will not go away any time soon. If the federal government won’t act, the states may. Massachusetts, for example, is getting closer to  banning all use of handheld cell phones by drivers. New York is also pondering such a move.  Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, have already banned texting while driving. Thirty states (and Washington, D.C.) ban all cell phone use by new drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Association keeps a list of distracted driving statutes by state. And, New York state is about to hold a hearing on distracted driving.

It doesn’t take a huge leap to see that as these new gizmo-packed cars hit the road, the potential for more distracted drivers will rise. Look for more scrutiny from safety advocacy groups and the states, if not the federal government, going forward.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mroach

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