Drivers, start your engines—and log in to your Wi-Fi. Just be sure to put the car in park if you’re going to tweet or update your Facebook status. That’s essentially the auto industry’s response to government warnings that a proliferation of models equipped with Web access and other distractions will cause a spike in accidents.
As Audi (NSU:GR), Nissan (NSANY), General Motors (GM), and Ford (F) make a selling point of in-car Internet and social networks, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pushing new federal guidelines to discourage their use. The government says carmakers should avoid any feature that would take a driver’s eyes off the road for more than two seconds; interactive devices should only work when the car is stopped. “We don’t have to choose between safety and technology,” LaHood says in an e-mail, “but while these devices may offer consumers new tools and features, automakers have a responsibility to ensure they don’t divert a driver’s attention.”
The guidelines are just suggestions—they don’t have the force of law and stop short of setting limits on what cars can include. That’s allowed automakers to praise LaHood’s efforts to protect drivers while continuing to develop the features the government is concerned about. The industry’s creative argument: The new gadgets are safer for drivers than fumbling with smartphones while behind the wheel. “They’re going to do those things whether it’s through the vehicle or through a handheld device that they bring with them in the car,” says Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include BMW (BMW:GR) and Volkswagen (VOW:GR), “and those are devices that were never designed to be used while in an auto.”
The new Cadillac XTS sedan will include an iPad-like touchscreen and limited voice commands. “When you look at the average car, and we’re guilty of it and so are all of our competitors, you’ve got too many buttons,” says GM Chief Executive Officer Daniel Akerson. Ford, whose MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch infotainment systems were panned by Consumer Reports magazine for being too complicated to use, says it’s devising new, easier ways for drivers to get on their favorite sites—when the car isn’t moving. “Our engineers have … been working with Facebook engineers to develop unique and safer ways of integrating the car experience with Facebook,” Jay Cooney, a Ford spokesman, says in an e-mail.
No matter how easy they are to use, features such as these “only serve to feed an already ravenous appetite for distracted driving,” says Rob Reynolds, executive director of FocusDriven, which has pressed for tougher penalties for drivers who text or talk on cell phones while driving and now backs putting restrictions on in-car Internet. That’s not likely to happen. LaHood has said that for now he’s satisfied with the voluntary guidelines and won’t push for federal rules with teeth. Instead, he’s hoping to put pressure on car companies with a series of public-service videos featuring people whose family members were killed in crashes caused by distracted drivers. There are plenty: In 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,092 people—nearly 10 percent of those killed on the nation’s highways—died in accidents related to drivers who were paying more attention to their screens than to the road.