Car makers are designing internet-connected windscreens allowing motorists to surf the Web, but politicians say increased driver distraction could be deadly.
US fears a pile-up as cars get connected
Five years from now, you are heading down the highway at 112 kph and in digital heaven.
Your smart windscreen responds to a wave of your hand, allowing you to keep track of friends via Facebook and chat on Twitter while simultaneously downloading music and videos to your in-car entertainment system.
You chance to glance up from your digital dashboard for a moment only to see two lorries bearing down on you. An instant later, the smart windscreen and dashboard explode on impact with the oncoming vehicles, as does the rest of your car - and you.
This is precisely the kind of nightmare scenario US legislators are now trying to avoid. Ray LaHood, the US transport secretary, has vowed to reduce the thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries caused by distracted drivers each year. Earlier this month, he proposed voluntary steps for car makers that would establish new safety criteria for hands-free calling, navigation and entertainment systems.
But the US transport department may soon find itself on a collision course with some of the world's most powerful corporations when it comes to in-car information technology (IT).
Car industry giants such as Ford and Daimler are leading the race to offer car owners the same level of "always-on" interactivity they are used to when accessing their smart phones and computers while away from the wheel.
"Cars are quickly becoming connected [to] mobile devices offering a wide range of infotainment services such as radio streaming, social media and connected navigation.
The main safety consideration raised is driver distraction," said Dominique Bonte, the group director for telematics and navigation at the technology consulting firm ABI Research.
According to ABI Research, within five years more than 90 per cent of new cars will come with internet-connected technology features. Some industry watchers are already starting to sound alarm bells over the prospect that, if it goes unchecked, providing "always-on" connectivity in cars could be a potentially fatal error.
"We are definitely heading for internet connectivity in cars. But whether you would want to be accessing online media while driving is another matter," said Jeremy Green, a principal analyst at the research company Ovum. "If using a mobile phone while driving is considered unsafe, then tweeting or accessing Facebook at the wheel is insane."
But both the IT and car industries, two key pillars of the US economy, are now heavily committed to IT in cars and are unlikely to want to change direction, having already committed billions of dollars.
Ford is building a research centre in Palo Alto, alongside other car makers who have moved to Silicon Valley to develop in-car infotainment technology providing the same services and applications (apps) available on other portable devices.
Alan Mulally, the chief executive of Ford, has coined a new slogan for his company: "Ford, the app choice for car buyers", according to Silicon Valley newspapers,
But Ford is likely to face fierce competition from other car makers such as Mercedes-Benz. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this year, Dieter Zetsche, the chairman of Daimler and the head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, made a proclamation concerning in-car communications.
"Much as a smartphone can be far more than just a tool for communication, a smart car can be more than just a means of transportation," he said."Precisely at the interfaces between communication and mobility, vast potential for innovation lies dormant, and we intend to tap it."
He then outlined plans to use the windshield as a sort of computer screen while allowing drivers constant access to in-car infotainment with hand gestures.
Car makers argue in-car IT can also be used in conjunction with global positioning satellite (GPS) and other location-based technologies to help prevent accidents and that voice control technology could also be used to enhance safety.
"The introduction of [semi-] autonomous driving, initially mainly based on advanced driver assistance systems features such as collision detection and automatic braking and steering, is evolving towards more advanced autonomous driving to offset the increased driver distraction generated by in-car connectivity and IT," said Mr Bonte.
But researchers at Stanford University in the US have said there has not yet been enough research done on the level of distraction likely to be caused by in-car entertainment systems.
Features such as voice control are also widely regarded as unreliable owing to variation in individual voices and local accents.
However hard the US legislature may fight in the future to curb the desire of car makers to give "always-on" consumers whatever they want with a wave of the hand, this new breed of car will be on sale all over the world.
Drivers and legislators in regions such as the Middle East will therefore need to be vigilant not to take unwarranted risks by embracing in-car infotainment until its safety levels have been fully assessed.