Wi-Fi hits the highway
In-car wireless puts some auto-buyers online. Will it drive them to distraction?
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“You have to do something about this now before it becomes a problem as big as drunk-driving,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a public policy center in Washington. “When you look at Wi-Fi, you’re looking at something that’s more of a cognitive distraction that takes more of your mind off the road – more than a simple phone call.”Skip to next paragraph
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Because it is so new, there is little data that links in-car wireless to auto safety. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NTSA) found that cellphone use and other in-car distractions collectively contribute to 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.
Text messaging while driving, one of the most similar in-car activities, is responsible for a 400 percent increase in the amount of time drivers are distracted from the road, according to the NTSA.
Her group works to temper new technology by warning carmakers about safety hazards they may never have considered.
“We keep blurring the line between a vehicle as a means of transportation and a vehicle as another kind of home,” she says. “Adding these things continues to blur that line.”
Cadillac and Autonet both insist their Wi-Fi hotspot is meant for “passengers only,” says Caldwell. When customers purchase the system, they are warned about the pitfalls of browsing cyberspace while navigating the road.
However, advocates like Mr. Ditlow say simply marketing in-car technology as one thing will not necessarily make it so. A comparison, he says, can be made to the way beer is promoted.
“The alcohol industry says ‘drink responsibly.’ The automotive industry says ‘drive responsibly.’ We don’t want to take devices out of cars. What we want to say is, ‘If you want to use it, park it,’ ” he says. His group is drafting a proposal that makes it standard that whenever a car shifts into gear, its interactive technology shuts down.
But to the tech-savvy consumer, the debate over in-car wireless may be moot. As Chuck Squatriglia of Wired magazine observes, “Who’s going to get an expensive [wireless] system in your car when you have an iPhone in your pocket?”
They both access the Internet through cellphone towers. But the iPhone can leave your car – and, admittedly, costs more per month.
Mr. Squatriglia, who edits the magazine’s Autopia blog, says that regardless of necessity, wireless technology is expected to become the next platform for automotive innovation. Once carmakers master signals transmitting in and out of cars, it opens up intelligent transportation systems that allow cars to “talk” to one another to ease road congestion, and to beam advertisements for local restaurants directly into GPS units. Additionally, carmakers will soon be able to beam software updates or recall notices directly into their vehicles instead of requiring consumers to bring them into dealerships for servicing.
“Wireless is definitely something coming to the auto industry,” Squatriglia says. “You’re going to see more of it than less of it from now on.”