An Eventful Week in the Connected-Car World
Verizon and other tech companies descend on Detroit – and so do federal regulators.
Telematics Detroit 2012 was the site of several significant developments in the connected-car industry, some that happened on-site and one that happened miles away in Washington, D.C. And while drivers likely won’t see any immediate impact from the events at this small trade show, changes down the road from automakers, suppliers and government regulators could shape the way we buy and own cars in the future.
Verizon made big news the week before the show by announcing plans to purchase Hughes Telematics, which supplies Mercedes-Benz’s mbrace system, for $612 million in cash. And on the eve of the conference, Verizon also revealed it’s forming the 4G Venture Forum for Connected Cars -- along with BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota -- to develop ways to integrate LTE connectivity into vehicles and to promote the technology among automotive suppliers and application developers.
It was also the first time at Telematics Detroit that I’ve seen representatives from technology giants such as Google and Facebook taking part in talks, or just roaming the exhibit floor. Clearly, these companies, as well as others from the wireless industry including Nokia and Sprint, are looking into the lucrative connected-car industry. So are government regulators.
Whether coincidental or not, it was during the second day of the conference that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration separately unveiled what it called a Blueprint for Ending Distracted Driving. The document’s main focus is to draw attention to distracted driving and raise public awareness of the problem. But it also states that NHTSA is “considering … guidelines to address portable devices not built into the vehicle, including aftermarket GPS navigation systems, smartphones, electronic tablets and pads, and other mobile communications devices.” This could be an effort to address what NHTSA Administrator David Strickland called a regulatory "doughnut hole” that was left out of Phase 1 of federal guidelines announced in February that only cover in-dash electronics.
The blueprint says that a Phase 3 may even address voice-activated controls “to further minimize distraction in factory-installed, aftermarket and portable devices.” This should make automakers and suppliers a bit uncomfortable, as they often point to voice activation as a way to provide hands-on-the-wheel, eyes-on-the-road access to in-dash technology when the distracted-driving issue pops up.
NHSTA Deputy Administrator Ron Medford struck a collaborative tone during closing remarks at Telematics Detroit on Thursday. “We can and will do both,” he said in reference to allowing technology in vehicles while also ensuring it doesn’t create distractions. “We’re moving towards finalizing the guidelines for automakers on in-vehicle electronic devices that provide the features consumers want without … sacrificing safety by distracting the driver.”
At a press conference announcing the blueprint, however, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called out carmakers for allowing access to social media behind the wheel. “We want to make sure they understand,” he said, “that the ability to download Facebook … is not exactly a safe way to drive.”
Most surprising, though, is that LaHood may not have to worry even if the market gets to decide: During Thursday's keynote address, Thilo Koslowski, an analyst with technology research firm Gartner, said that an upcoming report by his company shows that most drivers don’t want social media in their cars. In his address, Koslowski said that they instead want "specific applications that make sense when they're driving," such as real-time weather reports and forecasts and parking information.
Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to Edmunds.com. In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.
While I'm not a big supporter of ever-more-complicated electronic information systems in cars, the heavy-handed regulators should bear in mind that some of these systems, although distracting, may be less distracting than the alternatives. A voice-activated defroster is better than a fiddly set of dials and buttons somewhere down near the stick shift, and a tom-tom or integrated nav system is better than driving with a road map laid over the steering wheel. Yeah, I know, you're not supposed to look at the map while driving but let's get real here - it happens, so let's find a better way than pretending that everyone pulls over at a convenient rest stop to check the map.
EXPLORE NEW CARS
MORE ON MSN AUTOS
ABOUT EXHAUST NOTES
Cars are cool, and here at MSN Autos we love everything about them, but we also know they're more than simply speed and style: a car is an essential tool, a much-needed accessory to help you get through your day-to-day life. What you drive is also one of the most important investments you can make, so we'll help you navigate your way through the car buying and ownership experiences. We strive to be your daily destination for news, notes, tips and tricks from across the automotive world. So whether it's through original content from our world-class journalists or the latest buzz from the far corners of the Web, Exhaust Notes helps you make sense of your automotive world.
Have a story idea? Tip us off at firstname.lastname@example.org.