The connected car becomes a reality

In-car entertainment is usually a sideline event at car shows and almost unnoticeable at electronics shows. But in the first two months of 2010, in-car internet has been prominently displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, followed by the Chicago Auto Show and the CeBIT electronics show. Has the era of the "connected car" finally arrived?

US automaker Ford certainly thinks so. Earlier this year at the Chicago Auto Show, it showed off MyFord Touch, an integrated system that links music with the internet through a wireless dongle to allow customers to surf while on the move. Drivers can load SD cards, tag music, or have RSS feeds read to them by their vehicles.

Ford isn't the only one in the business. At the same show, Kia launched UVO, its own take on in-car connectivity, whilst Audi has recently debuted its MMI technology on the new A8. MMI, powered by Qualcomm's 3G network, integrates technology search as Google Earth to provide a 3D navigation experience for drivers.

Alpine, a leading maker of audio and navigation systems for cars, recently announced a tie-up with Nokia to deliver new content to devices using 3G and Bluetooth technology. At the time, the head of product development at Nokia described in-car infotainment as a "natural extension for the capabilities of smartphones."

However, such rapid growth in automotive technology has led to some voicing concerns over the safety implications.

In a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, researchers found that driver inattention that involves looking away from the road for more than a few seconds is a factor in nearly 80 percent of accidents.

US talk show host Oprah Winfrey dedicated a whole show in January to the subject, calling distracted driving an "epidemic that is sweeping through our country," and the US Department of Transportation has launched a high profile campaign to educate people of the dangers.

Automakers claim that their new vehicles, which feature voice-activated operation and often prevent some functions whilst the vehicle is in motion, are safer than ever.

"At Ford, we think driver distraction is a critically important issue," said the company's Sue Cischke. "Drivers experience many different types of distractions on a daily basis. Drivers are going to have conversations, read maps and directions, and listen to music while they drive. Ford believes hands-free, voice-activated technology substantially reduces that risk by helping drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."

It seems, however, that in-car connectivity is set to boom, whether or not the car industry can convince consumers - and regulators - that its products are safe. Technology analyst iSuppli has estimated that 62.3 million consumers will have internet access in their automobiles by 2016, a sharp increase from the 970,000 at the end of 2009.

For tomorrow's drivers, it seems that "information superhighway" will be as important as the highway itself.

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