Cars With Benefits

Soon new cars will have Internet access so carmakers are developing ways to reduce distractions. Like turning on the radio with the wink of an eye

HondaLink brings connected cars into the mainstream.
HondaLink brings connected cars into the mainstream. Image courtesy of Honda

If you’re over 50 and bought a new car recently, you’ve no doubt had the same reaction to the dashboard that I did, which was: “What is all this?”

I realize that these days data is to be revered and that a moment without infotainment or, perish the thought, a Web connection, is viewed as life not worth living. Yet I can’t shake the notion that the point of getting in a car is to drive it somewhere and that this has generally not required that I be so well-informed or emotionally fulfilled.

The above statement, of course, lowers me deep into the pit of fogeyishness and I know that frankly, no companies, save those that sell medications, see me and my ilk as a valued demographic. For carmakers, certainly, the target is the generations for which any screen, including a dashboard, should be a gateway to friends and music and info gratification. And it’s become critical for them to start delivering on that expectation since research suggests that the younger slice of that market isn’t as enanmored of the whole driving thing as their predecessors were–the percentage of young licensed drivers in the U.S. keeps dropping.

A new digital divide

So we’re moving quickly into the era of the connected car, with vehicles seen as rolling smartphones with easy access to Facebook and Twitter and to mobile apps, such as Pandora and Yelp. Any question about when this is going mainstream was answered a few weeks ago when Honda announced that starting this fall, a system called HondaLink will be offered in new Honda Accords. It will allow drivers to stream Internet radio, download audiobooks, see ratings for nearby restaurants and have Facebook feeds read to them.

With HondaLink, as with similar systems on other models, your smartphone will feed info from the Web into the dashboard display. But when is all the stuff on the screen too much? Well, it depends on your age. While three out of four car owners in a new Harris Poll said in-car connectivity could be too distracting, when people were asked about the appeal of connected cars, the results broke down along a generational digital divide.

Less than 40 percent of those surveyed between the ages of 50 and 66 think it’s important to have a connected car; drop down into the 18-to-35 age group and the approval rating jumps to almost 60 percent. And two out of three people in the younger group said a car’s technology would likely influence their next car-buying decision; in the older group, the number was under 50 percent. One other notable difference: Younger drivers were more concerned about privacy, specifically what connectivity would reveal about their driving habits and how that could affect their insurance rates.

Siri, tell that guy’s car that he’s a jerk

Automakers say all the in-dash technology will make drivers less likely to use their phones while they’re at the wheel. The big question, of course, is whether one distraction is simply being traded for another. Given that within the next five years, at least an estimated 80 percent of the new cars in North America and Europe will have Internet access, this is no small matter. The U.S. Department of Transportation already has weighed in with voluntary guidelines, which basically tell carmakers to keep it simple. It’s true that distracted driving will become less of an issue when driverless cars hit the market, but that’s still years away.

The focus now is on finding the most efficient ways to get our cars to do our bidding. Ford, whose MyFordTouch system has made it a leader in what’s known as in-car telematics, gives you three options: you can use a new and improved touch screen in the middle of the instrument panel, you can use secondary controls on the steering wheel or you can just speak your mind with the hope that the machine will catch your drift.

Actually, you have a much better chance these days that your voice commands will be understood. There’s little question that Siri, the iPhone’s digital assistant, has racheted up the capabilities of voice recognition. So it’s not surprising that most of the major automakers, will the exception of Ford, are seriously considering integrating Siri’s Eyes Free into their new vehicles. It’s a feature on the steering wheel, which like the button on the iPhone, would allow you to strike up a conversation with the ever-servile Siri.

Or you can just talk with your hands. And your face. Harman, the car infotainment systems supplier, has developed a concept car in which you can control the dashboard techonology with gestures. A wink turns the radio on, a tilt of your head to the left or right turns the volume up or down and a tap on the steering wheel skips to the next song. And if you want to make a call? Right, thumb up, pinkie out.

Car power

Here are more of the latest advances using car sensors and other fresh tech:

  • When cars talk: A year-long research project involving 3,000 drivers in Ann Arbor, Michigan will analyze how enabling cars to talk to one other reduces collisions. The study will also try to determine whether warning sounds or visual signals are better at helping drivers avoid crashes.
  • You’ll feel a sneeze coming: Ford has just come out with an Allergy Alert app. It aggregates info from to let drivers whose cars have Ford’s Sync system know about the pollen levels where they are. Also the asthma risk and the level of ultraviolet rays.
  • Straighten up and drive right: More cutting-edge stuff from Ford. It has developed a technology called Traffic Jam Assist that uses cameras and sensors to ensure that your car stays in its lane and keeps pace with other vehicles in traffic.
  • I brake for crashes: As of 2014, the European Commission will not give its five-star safety rating to any car without autonomous emergency braking. It’s a system using sensors and cameras to track the distance to a car in front of you. If it sees the threat of a crash, the brakes apply on their own.
  • Bad moods: Toyota is developing technology that will use a camera to analyze drivers’ facial expressions. If you look sad or angry, the vehicle will sound warning alerts sooner since research shows that people in those emotional states are less alert to road hazards.

Video bonus: Here’s a Smart Planet video that explains how cars talking to one another could dramatically reduce the number of crashes, particularly in intersections.

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