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Report from CES: Your Connected Car

January 14th, 2011 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

For years, a major topic at the Consumer Electronics Show has been the increasing sophistication of in-car electronics. Six-speaker sound systems and GPS mapping were only the beginning.  New cars today are often available with options that provide news, entertainment, communication, route planning, and safety – all enabled by wireless broadband.  Many auto manufacturers are pushing the envelope of car connectivity.  For instance, General Motors has the prototype EN-V – a tiny concept car that can use broadband to navigate itself and that comes when you call it from your smartphone.

At a standing-room-only session at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attendees heard from a roster of companies that are now providing apps for cars. OnStar, a pioneer in the field, is growing its paid-subscription service to provide vehicle security and safety. Pandora, which millions of people already use for a personalized radio experience, is seeking to become as easy to use in your car as it is on your laptop or smartphone. Other companies are specializing in speech recognition, in-car systems integration, and other approaches to make a range of automotive conveniences seamless and safe.

As impressive and enjoyable as this technology can be, there’s a clear potential downside: Driver distraction. We’re still trying to figure out how to deal with the problem of texting and driving, a deadly trend that both government and industry are fighting together.  The Department of Transportation is leading the Federal effort, CTIA launched a teen safe driving initiative, and the FCC hosted a workshop and developed an information clearinghouse on distracted driving. Now these mitigation efforts are further complicated by the increasing range of electronic options that tempt drivers to take their eyes minds off the road.

The good news is that the auto industry is recognizing the risk, more openly than when these innovations were presented at CES a year ago. One auto executive on the apps-for-cars panel put it bluntly: “If we don’t do our job well in our space, we can introduce things that can kill people.” In a session on driver distraction and safety, CES brought together David Strickland, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, with experts who have monitored the behavior of drivers and the behavior of cars (a field called telematics) to analyze the problem and find solutions.

While this is still a controversial area, the speakers at CES generally agreed on a few key points that suggest the challenges that still lay in front of us. First, many believe that straightforward bans on texting while driving will not have the hoped-for effect. We have now become so used to living wired lives that it’s hard to give up connectivity in the car; as one speaker said, tongue in cheek, “driving is starting to get in the way of our social networking.” Second, it’s clear that broadband connectivity, with all the apps that it brings, is coming to most cars, and that consumers will increasingly demand it. And third, all this innovation must be managed safely for the good of consumers and of the industry itself. A wake-up call came last week when Consumer Reports denied its Recommended designation to two Ford vehicles because of their distracting voice-and-touchscreen systems.

Several major auto companies are putting their engineers to work to make their cars safe, as well as connected and entertaining. Ford is continually improving its Sync system, a popular option now available in all its vehicles, which uses voice commands to provide music, podcasts, and directions with hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The high-end Mercedes M-Brace system uses voice commands and telematics to provide phone connectivity, entertainment, and safety and security protections. Other automakers are taking similar approaches to the new world of car electronics.

All these advances will provide new options for car buyers – and new challenges for policymakers concerned about auto safety.  What do you look for in a car, and what are your views on safety and driver distraction? Please add a comment to let us know.

7 Responses to “Report from CES: Your Connected Car”

  1. Joe says:

    Joel, you make some very good points about distracted drivers and the problems they cause. I could not agree more. But, the car companies seem to love throwing this stuff in cars. I think it does two things for them. 1) It distracts (no pun intended) purchasers from actually looking at the true value of a vehicle - like its reliability, safety or MPG. Things that should really matter - but, they focus on these things as a distraction and that it makes it easier for them to sell these vehicles to those who have to have the latest technology in their car just to stay cool with their friends. 2) To justify why prices keep going up and up and up. In other industries, technology has forced prices down. Think about big screen TVs. When they first came out - they were priced in the thousands. Now, you can pick one up for a few hundred dollars and it works better than the original thousand dollar ones - all due to improvements in technology and price competition. But, not with automobiles. The prices have to keep going up as labor keeps going up and the stock market continues to demand unobtainable year after year revenue growth. Thus, to justify their rising prices - they throw this stuff into a vehicle - hoping that buyers will think that it makes the entire car worth the overinflated price. Get $50 worth of tech at a $5,000 sticker price.

    Joseph - http://www.businessmoneytoday.com

  2. Guest says:

    Interesting contribution.

    I think it will take some time to transport ourselves that way. I'd rather see electric cars get better developed. Sure, safety is important, but better be the driver more careful as most accidents happen by drivers.

  3. Aca says:

    All this technology, amazing, Soon you will not need a driwer. But will it be as fun driving?
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  4. Shimon Lipkin says:

    great information, thank you for sharing it to us.

  5. Joe Cusimano says:

    After reading Joel Gurin’s report report about the January Consumers Electronics Show, I’m rather saddened by the lack of any mention that todays modern automobile still lacks simple basic two-way radio communications equipment. Cell phones aside, cars today cannot talk to neighbouring nearby users of the road. Cars cannot communicate directly with nearby support services. Aircraft can do it. Boats can do it. Truckers can do it but the mass majority of cars essentially are not able to do it.

    FCC officials way back in the 50s were bold enough to bring in the Citizens Radio Band but they made some fundamental errors that domed the service to failure. They neglected to use the FM mode of operation and they went and put the service in a section of the radio spectrum that was flawed, good only for the hobbyist who was eager to talk around the world.

    There is nothing wrong with the concept of cars talking to cars as circumstances demand. But it does take some smart planning and direction. It is a shame that the FCC either doesn’t care or doesn’t know the way to proceed. Regards driver distraction, today there are way to avoid that problem using hands free operation. Mandatory transmit time-out control could also control how radios are used..

    The FCC needs to step up to the plate and catch up to the latest electronics out there in this matter. There is a need for a new Motorists Radio Band. (216-220 MHz - maybe ?). This is a serious matter of public safety. I’m hopeful every year to see some FCC movement forward but my hope is running out.


  6. Will says:

    I agree with Joe. Call me old-fashioned, but I just don't understand why I need to watch tv or check facebook from the dash of my car. One of the reasons I get in the car for a real drive these days is so that I can get UNconnected. I don't like being plugged into social media constantly - I even turn off my cell phone. But Joe also makes a very valid point about the increase in car prices as a result of all of this additional technology instead of a re-duction like most other markets see. Technology has led my business market, like most, to produce lots of inexpensive items but often at the lack of quality. We've actually cut the technology out to produce higher quality items. But here again, the type of technology being employed for all of the high-tech entertainment gadgetry isn't impacting a the actual performance of the cars. In the instances where it could do some good, like weather forecasts or engine warnings, the driver still gets distracted. It's obviously here to stay, but I think there should be more emphasis on the safe utilization of it than on the fact that it's there.


  7. Guest says:

    Joel, I am waiting for the day we will just be able to get in,...buckle up,...and say...." ..take me to (address) please" and off we GO! No more white knuckle gripping the steering wheel and ending up at my destination needing to take a nap from the anxiety. lol.
    I believe we will see limited if any wrecks and road rage at that point. Tell me more about the new technology cause i am all ears.
    We have already come along way with hands free communications which has helped me to focus a lot more on driving and being safe.
    But bring on the big guns,....i think everyone is ready?

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