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Adding Internet Access To Cars Could Be A Costly Distraction

Whether it’s safe or not to use while driving, more drivers want Internet access in their cars, according to a recent study.

And car manufacturers are striving to deliver that service, with General Motors being the latest to offer Internet access in its vehicles.

In an industry that is used to delivering information to drivers in a dumbed down way, adding the immediacy of Internet access to autos could be more challenging and could turn off consumers if it’s not done right the first time, says Michael O’Shea, CEO of Abalta Technologies, which develops software for mobile devices.

“It’s a dreadful idea to have to read Twitter or Facebook or something in the car,” O’Shea says.

More consumers want smartphones and vehicle dashboards integrated, and “expect their new cars to have technology at least as good as they find in other devices in their life,” according to a study by Global Information, Inc.

App-connected vehicles are projected to reach 20% of consumer cars in Western Europe and North America by 2017, a report from Juniper Research found. Smartphone tethering and in-vehicle apps should help to drop the price of Internet service added by car manufacturers, according to the report.

Texting while driving is a known distraction, and auto makers are trying to make Internet access while driving less of a distraction by using voice recognition software that allows emails to be dictated and for Facebook or Twitter updates to be read aloud to the driver.

“It’s about as distracting as listening to the radio,” O’Shea says of Honda’s HondaLink audio stream of Facebook feeds.

But if apps are clunky in a car and take too long to load, such as Toyota’s Entune that pulls apps through a phone onto a dash screen, young users who want to use their technology in their car will find another way to use it that might not be as safe, such as using a smartphone while driving, he says.

“If this thing isn’t properly in their car, they’re going to use it anyway,” O’Shea says.

In-car navigation systems, for example, often aren’t as good as Google Maps on a phone, so drivers will use their phone instead, he says.

For people who do a lot of work in their cars while out on business, speech-to-text software to dictate texts and searches, and having 4G access through a Verizon hotspot makes being online in a car easy, says Brian Bagdasarian, CEO of APerftectShirt.com

“Today if I didn’t have all of my stuff in my car, I couldn’t operate,” Bagdasarian says. 

“From a safety standpoint — text to speech and speech recognition are vastly improved over previous iterations, and makes the difference between safety and stupidity,” he says. “Safety often goes hand in hand with intelligence, and it is no different here.”

Whether it’s adding 4G LTE access to new vehicles, as GM plans to do on most 2015 Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac models, the Audi Connect program that turns an Audi into a mobile hot spot, or Ford’s Sync on-board entertainment system that has been available since 2007 and connects mobile devices to the Internet, connected cars have been found by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be distracting enough that it is proposing “distraction” guidelines for automakers.

More than 3,000 highway deaths were caused by distracted driving in 2010. The guidelines being considered would reduce the “complexity and amount of time required” for in-car systems, such as limiting how long drivers’ eyes are off the road to two seconds or less and limiting “unnecessary visual information” in the driver’s field of view.

If an Internet task takes more than six glances to complete, drivers really shouldn’t do it, says Paul Green, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

Beyond being safe, another question for drivers with Internet access in their cars is if their car insurance rates will go up. Rates could be higher if Internet access is proven to cause distractions for drivers, says Tim Dodge, director of research and media relations for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of New York.

But since the issue hasn’t been looked into enough, any rate increases would likely be small, if at all, Dodge says.

Until car makers come up with in-dash screens that are easy to use, drivers are more likely to turn to their smartphones, O’Shea says. “Most apps that you have on your smartphone don’t make sense in the car,” he says.

While drivers may want to hear Facebook updates and dictate emails, probably the best use of the Internet may be giving drivers diagnostic information so they can drive better for better fuel economy, and give the car features that make driving safer, O’Shea says.

 
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