Connected cars: A new risk

New in-car services and complex controls raise safety concerns

Last reviewed: October 2011

Worried about drivers talking on cell phones? Don't look now, but the guy in the next lane could be searching the Web or posting a Facebook entry as he maneuvers in traffic. With the exploding popularity of smart phones and social networks, automakers are increasingly looking at how they can attract customers by integrating those types of functions into their cars.

Toyota's new Entune system, for example, which will begin showing up in cars this fall, can link with smart phones and allow drivers to access onscreen Web information such as weather forecasts and stock quotes. It also allows them to search the Web for points of interest and sort through the onscreen results.

Other automakers are now allowing drivers to listen to and/or send texts, Twitter tweets, or Facebook posts. And more manufacturers are considering adding similar Web or social-media services.

Such in-car technology is quickly being integrated into broader infotainment and navigation systems, an area of auto technology that's rapidly expanding. "Within five years, 90 percent of new cars will ship with connected car features," predicts Dominique Bonte, group director of telematics and navigation at ABI Research, a technology consulting firm. For consumers, he says, those services are now "extending their connected lifestyle into the car."

But many safety advocates are wary of the effect that such systems will have on driver safety. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says they pose yet another potential source for driver distraction, already a growing problem. He told us in an interview that automakers "need to really think about all of these things that they're putting in automobiles now and what impact they have on the driver's ability to drive safely."

Moreover, that development comes at the same time that control systems in many models—the way you operate the audio, climate, navigation, and other systems—are becoming needlessly complicated (see Controls gone wild).

"All manufacturers are struggling with the question of balance between safety and technology," says Bryan Reimer, Ph.D., associate director of the New England University Transportation Center. "Just because you can provide the content doesn't mean you should," says Reimer, who studies the impact of technology on drivers. "In many situations, driving takes most of our attention; we're not capable of doing much more."

Too much information?

Toyota's Entune system has enough distractions to lure a driver's eyes off the road, even though some functions are deactivated when the car is moving.