Thursday, January 7, 2010

Driven to Distraction: Internet On Your Dashboard

To the dismay of safety advocates worried about driver distraction, car makers are finding a new place for your PC, the front seat.

Intel and Google are turning their attention from the desktop to the dashboard, to bring irresistible apps via 10-inch screens above the gearshift.

Showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages, the first wave of these “infotainment systems,” will hit the market this year. They can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger

However, they prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving.

Safety advocates say the companies behind these technologies are tone-deaf to mounting research showing the risks of distracted driving. Harvard estimates that motorists talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 accidents involving injuries a year.

One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.

Also in the works, technology like voice commands and screens that can simultaneously show a map to the driver and a movie to a front-seat passenger. Ford’s new MyFord system lets the driver adjust temperature settings or call a friend while the car is in motion, while its built-in Web browser works only when the car is parked.

New high-end multimedia systems are due out this year that use full-fledged PC chips from Intel and Nvidia. Such chips once consumed too much electricity to be used in cars.

A complex new dashboard console from Ford, which it plans to unveil Thursday, brings the car firmly into the land of electronic gadgets. The 4.2-inch color screen to the left of the speedometer displays information about the car, like the fuel level, while a companion screen on the right shows things like the name of a cellphone caller or the title of the digital song file being played. An eight-inch touch screen tops the central console, displaying things like control panels and, when the car is not moving, Web pages.

The system has Wi-Fi capability, two U.S.B. ports and a place to plug in a keyboard — in short, many of the features of a standard PC.

Companies that make chips for PCs and that want to see their processors slotted into the 70 million cars sold worldwide each year.

The muscle of the computer industry adds powerful new backing to efforts by carmakers to introduce new technologies as a source of profit. Once they promoted advanced stereos, but now navigation and integrated phone systems are the hot items.

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute says motorists face a much greater crash risk when looking at a screen, even if it is just a simple GPS map, and, that the overall danger for drivers will rise as screens deliver additional streams of data.

The longer a motorist looks away from the road, “the risk of crash or near crash goes up exponentially — not a linear increase, but exponentially,” V.T.T.I. says. “So when you start introducing things like e-mail, Internet access, restaurant options or anything like that, the risk goes up.”

Source: New York Times

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