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 newfound confidence that the federal government will not regulate these “infotainment” incursions.

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

The U.S. Transportation Dept., which hosted a distracted-driving summit in 2009 and 2010, did not hold the event last year—a sign that the issue is not a priority—and this has emboldened automakers to forge ahead, according to the Journal. A DOT spokeswoman said it is too early to say if the agency will host the summit, which has taken place in the fall, this year. But she said the agency remains focused on the problem of distracted driving.

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 onboard GPS systems, adjusting the radio, or watching a video.

Are hands-free systems safe?

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 automakers have used these hands-free features to say that using in-dash systems is safer than manipulating cell phones to text or make calls.

As Michael Sprague, marketing director at Kia Motors’s (000270:KS) 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.”

The conflict between infotainment and safety will not soon be resolved. Critics complain that automakers and their consumer electronics allies are making it easier to drive while distracted. 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 pondering such a move. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia have already banned texting while driving. Thirty (and Washington) ban all cell phone use by new drivers. The Governors Highway Safety Assn. 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 from the federal government.

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