If officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are walking the show floor at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, they're probably having apoplectic fits.
On display is an explosion of in-car apps, Internet services -- even behind-the-wheel video conferencing -- that is bound to send government officials screaming about driver distraction. And with more advanced technology, including self-driving cars, rapidly rolling out, rulemakers are finding it hard to keep up.
This will be the year of the connected car, with all the major automakers pushing Web-based services through their entire lines, from luxury brands like Lexus to budget models from Chevy. At the electronics expo GM announced that it would make it easier for outside companies to create new smartphone apps that would make its vehicles more flexible and allow owners to more readily personalize and upgrade their in-dash systems. It means that services like TuneIn, which makes radio stations from around the world available in some Chevy models, will appear sooner in GM cars. The company also hopes developers will use information from the car -- such as safe driving habits -- to deliver tangible benefits, such as lower insurance charges.
Even companies that have built their reputations on safety and security are jumping into the car app market.
Ford is also pushing its existing Applink software, which allows developers to quickly write new connected car programs in days rather than months or years. The automaker has been a leader in enabling smartphones to connect to in-dash systems to play Web-based music and recorded radio shows. It's aggressively pushing more apps to the car, with nine new programs announced here in Las Vegas.
For the first time, the music service Rhapsody will be available in the car, and there will be some rather odd offerings. BeCouply, an app that suggests creative date ideas, will soon be available on Ford systems, so that drivers on the road can get dating pointers, such as spending quality time at a nearby bowling alley or taking skydiving lessons at a local airport.
Dating apps for cars aren't likely to be the next big thing, but even companies that have built their reputations on safety and security are jumping into the car app market. For the first time, Volvo will introduce a retro-fit, in-dash connected car system this spring. Volvo owners of later model cars (2010 or newer) will be able to get dealer-installed Connected Touch in their autos. With prices yet to be set, the touch-screen systems will include Google Maps, TuneIn, and -- a first for cars -- Spotify. With the Spotify app, drivers can select songs using voice commands.
Ford, GM, and Volvo all promise that frivolous apps will not be allowed in their vehicles -- no YouTube and no games -- and that all the software will be rigorously tested before drivers are allowed to download it. However, just how far the technology could go in the future is being demonstrated by QNX, which makes the behind-the-scenes software already in millions of vehicles. A tricked-out Bentley Continental GT convertible on the show floor has a custom-built system with a new curved touch-screen and features that include live video calling over high-speed wireless connections.
Features like these are bound to set NHTSA leaders heads spinning, but auto makers point out there is already a serious problem with drivers using their phones behind the wheel. Car makers insist that by getting them to put down their phones and lock out particular features, such as touching the screen to find a restaurant or input an address, as well as introducing hands-free voice control will minimize smartphone distractions.
Ultimately, the solution may be to take control of the vehicle away from drivers. Several car companies at the show are trotting out so-called autonomous or self-driving cars. Toyota is boasting about its autonomous car research at CES. Showing off a Lexus LS outfitted with a special computer-controlled laser and camera system that gives the vehicle a 360 degree view of the road and can recognize traffic lights, the company said its technology was still in the research stage and wouldn't let reporters come near the car at a press conference.
Audi is also touting its autonomous efforts at CES, demonstrating its “Piloted Driving” system. Ideally suited to heavy stop-and-go traffic situations, Audi's computer-controlled car combines radar, laser, and camera systems to detect other vehicles and pedestrians. It can navigate the worst traffic congestion, leaving the driver's hands free to read the newspaper or surf the Net. Ulrich Hofmann, who works on the development of Audi's advanced driver assistance systems, told Foxnews.com that it's designed with accident avoidance and safety in mind, relieving drivers of the more stressful tasks of dealing with heavy traffic.
So when will you be able to buy a self-driving car? “Not in the immediate future,” said Mark Templin, Toyota group vice president and general manger of the Lexus Division. Both Audi and Toyota insist that robotic cars won't appear soon, and they plan to introduce the technology in baby steps.
In the meantime, the app is out of the bag. So the real trick for car companies will be to give drivers enough connected services and apps that they clearly want -- such as having the boss' e-mail read aloud--while restricting features of these systems so that people behind the wheel don't become dangerously distracted. If car companies -- or legislators -- cut off too many of those features, however, drivers may just go back to playing with their phones in their laps, which was the problem we wanted to avoid in the first place.