To the dismay of safety advocates already worried about driver distraction, automakers and high-tech companies have found a new place to put sophisticated Internet-connected computers: the front seat.
Technology giants like Intel and Google are turning their attention from the desktop to the dashboard, hoping to bring the power of the PC to the car. They see vast opportunity for profit in working with automakers to create the next generation of irresistible devices.
This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, the neon-drenched annual trade show here, these companies are demonstrating the breadth of their ambitions, like 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps and Web pages.
The first wave of these “infotainment systems,” as the tech and car industries call them, will hit the market this year. While built-in navigation features were once costly options, the new systems are likely to be standard equipment in a wide range of cars before long. They prevent drivers from watching video and using some other functions while the car is moving, but they can still pull up content as varied as restaurant reviews and the covers of music albums with the tap of a finger.
Safety advocates say the companies behind these technologies are tone-deaf to mounting research showing the risks of distracted driving — and to a growing national debate about the use of mobile devices in cars and how to avoid the thousands of wrecks and injuries this distraction causes each year.
“This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the new efforts to marry cars and computers. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.”
One system on the way this fall from Audi lets drivers pull up information as they drive. Heading to Madison Square Garden for a basketball game? Pop down the touch pad, finger-scribble the word “Knicks” and get a Wikipedia entry on the arena, photos and reviews of nearby restaurants, and animations of the ways to get there.
A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: “Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”
The technology and car companies say that safety remains a priority. They note that they are building in or working on technology like voice commands and screens that can simultaneously show a map to the driver and a movie to a front-seat passenger, as in the new Jaguar XJ.
“We are trying to make that driving experience one that is very engaging,” said Jim Buczkowski, the director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford. “We also want to make sure it is safer and safer. It is part of what our DNA will be going forward.”
Ford’s new MyFord system lets the driver adjust temperature settings or call a friend while the car is in motion, while its built-in Web browser works only when the car is parked. Audi says it will similarly restrict access to complex and potentially distracting functions. But in general, drivers will bear much of the responsibility for limiting their use of these devices.
Computer chips and other components improve every year while dropping in cost, allowing carmakers to introduce more sophisticated devices. Harman, based in Stamford, Conn., and a maker of such systems for cars, has created a pair of high-end multimedia systems due out this year that use full-fledged PC chips from Intel and Nvidia. Such chips once consumed too much electricity to be used in cars.
“We have always looked at the PC market with envy,” said Sachin Lawande, the chief technology officer at Harman, which works with Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota and others. “They’ve always had these great chips we could not use, but now that’s changing.”
A complex new dashboard console from Ford, which it plans to unveil Thursday, brings the car firmly into the land of electronic gadgets. The 4.2-inch color screen to the left of the speedometer displays information about the car, like the fuel level, while a companion screen on the right shows things like the name of a cellphone caller or the title of the digital song file being played. An eight-inch touch screen tops the central console, displaying things like control panels and, when the car is not moving, Web pages.
The system has Wi-Fi capability, two U.S.B. ports and a place to plug in a keyboard — in short, many of the features of a standard PC.
The automakers’ efforts are backed by companies that make chips for PCs and that want to see their processors slotted into the 70 million cars sold worldwide each year.
“Cars are going to become probably the most immersive consumer electronics device we have,” said Michael Rayfield, a general manager at Nvidia, a chip company that on Thursday plans to announce a deal with Audi. “In 2010, you will sit in these things, and it will be a totally different experience.”
The giants of the industry contend they are giving consumers what they want — and the things that smartphones and the Internet have trained them to expect.
“Customers are expecting more and more, especially business people who expect to find in the car what they find in their smartphone,” said Mathias Halliger, the chief engineer for Audi’s multimedia interface systems. “We should give them the same or a better experience.”
The muscle of the computer industry adds powerful new backing to efforts by carmakers to introduce new technologies as a source of profit. Once they promoted advanced stereos, but now navigation and integrated phone systems are the hot items.
“Carmakers assume, as most consumers do, that most cars are alike in terms of line quality and safety, and all the old attributes,” Art Spinella, an auto industry analyst with CNW Research, said. “Now the way to distinguish yourself is through higher tech.”
“But they’re totally ignoring one of the key issues of the future of driving, which is distracted driving.”
Awareness of that issue is growing. Even in 2003, when fewer people were multitasking in cars, researchers at Harvard estimated that motorists talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 accidents involving injuries a year.
Charlie Klauer, a researcher at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, says motorists face a much greater crash risk when looking at a screen, even if it is just a simple GPS map. She says the overall danger for drivers will rise as screens deliver additional streams of data.
The longer a motorist looks away from the road, “the risk of crash or near crash goes up exponentially — not a linear increase, but exponentially,” Ms. Klauer said. “So when you start introducing things like e-mail, Internet access, restaurant options or anything like that, the risk goes up.”
Regulators worry about the developments, too. Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, said the companies involved were on the wrong track.
“The idea they’re going to load automobiles up with all kinds of ways to be distracted — that’s not the direction we’re going, and I will speak out against it,” he said.
The companies contend that they are creating helpful systems that display crucial information. And they are quick to point out that more computing power could mean better safety technology as well, like sensors that try to predict dangerous driving situations.
Ford and Audi say they extensively tested and tweaked their systems to cut down on the amount of time that drivers spend looking at screens. Brad Stertz, a spokesman for Audi of America, said that this testing was voluntary.
“Because a lot of this is so new, there’s not a ton of regulatory testing that’s required, like would be required with crash testing,” Mr. Stertz said. He added that the company was also hoping to avoid legal troubles, saying, “It could be a legal issue if someone gets into a car accident and the cops blame the car company for a system that’s too elaborate.”
Darrin Shewchuk, a spokesman for Harman, said his company was working on safety technology like voice systems for listening to and composing e-mail messages. But he said that “generally speaking, the safety testing is really the responsibility of the automakers.”