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In-car Internet: Safety boost or driver danger?

Mark Henricks

Cars connected to the Internet or to each other using wireless networks promise to improve driver safety, reduce traffic accidents and save lives. They also promise to increase distracted driving, encourage accidents and cause traffic deaths.

These opposing views of in-car Internet access are playing out in research laboratories and regulatory think tanks. Meanwhile, vehicles with various forms of Internet access already are on the road.

Toyota’s 2012 Camry uses the Entune system to connect the car to Internet search engines, Facebook pages and other online content through the driver’s cellphone, displaying results on a dashboard screen. Ford’s similar MyFord Touch system, linked to the automaker’s Sync technology, has a built-in web browser and shows photos and videos on a screen in the center of the dash.

Toyota’s 2012 Camry uses the Entune system to connect the car to the web.

Those are manufacturer-installed options. Aftermarket gadgets like Autonet Mobile bring full-fledged Internet access to cars, allowing occupants to send and receive email and browse the web using laptops, tablets or smartphones as if connected to a hot spot at a coffee shop.

Does in-car web drive distraction?

For Azim Eskandarian, in-car Internet is not good news. Eskandarian, an engineering professor and director of the Center for Intelligent Systems Research at George Washington University, says in-car Internet ramps up the potential for driver distraction.

“Anything that takes the driver’s attention away from the act of driving reduces the safety of driving,” Eskandarian says. “If you’re checking Facebook or anything else while driving, that’s absolutely a dangerous situation.”

When drivers act dangerously, whether by allowing themselves to be distracted or otherwise, that can lead to accidents. And accidents typically lead to higher car insurance premiums.

Surfing for safety?

However, systems for in-car Internet and wireless networking also can promote safety. In August, Italian and American researchers tested an accident-detection system that connects cars wirelessly to alert drivers of wrecks involving other vehicles as soon as they occur.

Marco Roccetti, a University of Bologna professor who helped develop the technology, says the test in Los Angeles showed benefits by alerting drivers in time to stop before pile-ups occurred. “These can be quantified in terms of a 40 percent reduction of involved vehicles, as anticipated by our simulation and theoretical results,” Roccetti says.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is sponsoring work on another connected-vehicle system that will be tested by installing wireless devices in as many as 3,000 vehicles in Ann Arbor, Mich., for a year beginning in August 2012. Drivers will learn of impending dangers in real time, and the collected data will help researchers understand how motorists react to the technology.

Alerting drivers to problems ahead necessarily distracts them from driving at that moment. However, systems using audible alerts instead of requiring drivers to look at a screen will minimize distraction, proponents say.

On balance, these and other technological advancements promise to make driving much safer, some experts say. IEEE, a professional association for people in technology, says up to 90 percent of accidents could be avoided using advanced safety technologies including cars connected either via the Internet or dedicated wireless networks.

Ford’s MyFord Touch system has a built-in web browser.

While safety-boosting technology is in labs, infotainment is on the road — and on the minds of drivers. A MetLife survey found 27 percent of respondents were very or somewhat familiar with in-car social networking, while 31 percent never had heard of electronic stability control, which improves steering and prevents rollover wrecks. Electronic stability control, which MetLife called one of the biggest safety advancements in years, is required on U.S. vehicles beginning in the 2012 model year.

For in-car Internet to improve safety, Eskandarian says it should be inactive when the wheels are in motion, and information should be transferred to and from drivers using voice prompts. Another option is a heads-up display, which projects data such as your speed onto the windshield and is available on a handful of luxury models.

Is the price right?

To be widely accepted, in-car Internet must be affordable. For car manufacturers, that means less than $10 a vehicle, according to Daniel Dailey, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab at the University of Washington. That’s less than connected-car systems cost, according to Roccetti, who put the cost of his group’s technology at roughly $20 per car. There’s no estimate on how much it would add to what consumers pay for cars.

Any price hikes could be softened by combining accident alert features with, say, the ability to check Facebook. Marrying pure safety with appealing infotainment when it comes to in-car Internet mixes danger with lifesaving. But, Dailey says, “until you put infotainment in there, people won’t pay for it.”

Lawmakers can’t keep up

So far, legislation that could make sure in-car Internet is adopted safely lags at both the federal and state levels. “It’s one of those evolving issues and it’s moved faster than our policy,” says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Harsha notes that 35 states have enacted bans on texting while driving. “So it’s definitely something that state legislatures are doing,” she says. “But it’s hard to keep up with the evolving technology.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has not issued regulations on matters such as turning off Internet access off when vehicles are moving. The federal agency is scheduled to decide on the future of connected-vehicle technology in 2013.

What the future holds

At this point, car insurers have expressed more interest in the Italian safety technology than automakers, Roccetti says. One obstacle, Dailey says, is that connected-car systems require standardization between vehicles, while automakers want to differentiate products. However, Roccetti says, early tests prove that the technology works, and that it will be much cheaper than other intelligent vehicle systems, such as those that use cables embedded in pavement to guide cars.

Whether in-car Internet ultimately proves to be a boon or boondoggle is up in the air.

“If the Internet is used for providing safety information in a fashion that does not distract the driver, then it can be a safety tool,” Eskandarian says. “But if it is used like cellphones are used, for texting or calling or finding information while driving, then it is not a safety tool.”

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