In-car internetEnlarge Photo
True innovation is controversial. Most major developments come with their share of open-armed adopters and up-in-arms adversaries. The printing press, the light bulb, the automobile, the cell phone: while many have welcomed such inventions, many others have shouted them down as stupid, dangerous, and/or unnecessary.
The latest innovation to cause a stir is the web-enabled automobile, which is hurtling from rarity to ubiquity: in-car wi-fi is now an option on all GM vehicles, and just this week, Bengt Halvorson reported on new web gadgetry from Kia and Ford's MyTouch system. In one way or another, those and many, many other gizmos use the internet to make cars feel more like second homes (or for some, second offices).
While these tech developments can be pleasing to web junkies, they're disturbing to safety advocates, who worry that drivers of the future will pay more attention to their email inbox than the interstate. And those fears are understandable: texting and driving -- which we've often discussed -- is similarly distracting and leads to a huge number of accidents every year. Surely, giving drivers full access to the web will be just as bad, if not worse. So, how to address the problem?
Step One is to accept the fact that the genie is way out of the bottle. The mobile web is here to stay, whether we like it or not -- and if this year's Consumer Electronics Show is any guide, we like it a lot. Tech companies and automakers are rushing a range of products to market, and within a handful of years, we'll be driving vehicles that are vastly different from the ones our parents drove when they were our age. It won't simply be a matter of having access to maps and restaurant reviews: the whole internet cloud of contacts, photos, videos, and more will follow us wherever we go.
Step Two is for safety and consumer advocates to keep pressuring companies to make their products safer -- like the split-screen system Jaguar uses in the Jaguar XJ, which allows the driver to access only satnav info (like maps), while allowing the passenger to watch a movie or surf the web. Very smart groups might partner with automakers to establish a "seal of approval" system (a la Good Housekeeping), which would hopefully result in safer products and endorsement money for the nonprofits.
Step Three is to ignore the hysteria subtly promulgated by outlets by the New York Times. Don't get us wrong: there's a lot to like about the Gray Lady. But implying that car- and gadget-makers are leading us down the primrose path to our deaths overestimates the quality/desirability of their products. (Inventions fail all the time: remember the mini-CD?) Even more importantly, such presumptions underestimate the ability of most consumers to choose products wisely and to use them in a manner that generally keeps people from dying.
Step Four is to remember the first step. The technology is here, so let's roll up our sleeves and work to make it safer and smarter for all concerned.