U.S. drivers seem to hold conflicting opinions on in-car Internet access, viewing the technology as a driving hazard and even a threat to privacy while praising the entertainment and safety features it offers.
These opinions, presented in a Harris Interactive poll released Wednesday, come as automakers are seeing increased driver demand for digital technology and are adding more of it to their vehicles.
More than three out of four (76 percent) of the survey's 2,634 respondents answered that in-car connectivity causes too much distraction and is dangerous to have in vehicles. Automakers have gone too far in including this technology in their vehicles, according to 55 percent of those surveyed. U.S. drivers tend to attach strong emotions to their vehicles, and the poll reinforced that view, with 61 percent of people saying their car is "a haven from the outside world" and they don't always need an outside connection.
The auto industry said it understands the technology's potential safety risks and incorporates it in a way that creates the fewest disruptions. Integrating a smartphone into a car reduces the distractions that would be present if the phone was simply placed in the passenger seat, said Wade Newton, director of communications for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), an automotive trade group whose 12 members include Ford, Mazda, Toyota and General Motors.
"If the phone rings you have to reach over, grab it and see who's calling," he said. "If it is integrated, with one button they can accept the call, turn down the radio and open the speakers."
Integrated mobile phone use was an early example of in-car connectivity. Now the technology can turn vehicles into wireless hotspots, allow people to search the Web from dashboard touchscreens and connect to roadside assistance services by pressing a button.
All auto makers have introduced in-car connectivity features in some degrees and promote them on their websites. When asked to comment on the survey, though, some of the manufacturers declined to comment and others did not respond to interview requests by deadline.
BMW USA did reply to an interview request but could not comment on the survey. However, in an emailed statement, the company said that interest in safe motoring "is a healthy sign that consumers are concerned about distraction while driving, and we consider that a big success."
The statement added that BMW uses "science-based analysis" to incorporate smartphones and other in-car technology into its vehicles. "We have 5 driving simulators that are constantly evaluating the driver experience, plus we do mobile driver clinics in Europe, the U.S., and the Far East to assess driver reactions," the company said.
Car connectivity could provide companies with too much information on a person's location and how they drive, according to 61 percent of those polled. The survey showed 41 percent of respondents believe insurance companies would raise rates based on driving habits.
Car makers only share data if drivers opt in to such services, said Mark Boyadjis, an industry analyst at IHS Automotive. Auto makers' legal departments understand that sharing driver data without consent is illegal, he added.
Those who sign up for safety services, such as General Motors' OnStar, and question why they're being tracked miss the point of such systems, he said.
"If you sign up for stolen vehicle location and you don't want to be tracked, that's the whole idea behind the system," he said. "It's to make sure you can find your car when it's stolen."
Car manufacturers started offering connectivity features a few years ago, in some cases partnering with technology companies to develop the systems.
Ford turned to Microsoft to develop its Sync platform, which debuted in 2007. Among other functions, certain Sync packages include an in-car wireless router and let drivers use voice commands to control selected mobile phone apps.
At the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in May, Apple revealed that vehicles from nine automakers will incorporate the Siri voice command system found in its iOS 6 mobile platform. According to Apple, the Eyes Free feature will allow drivers to use the voice command button on their steering wheels to ask for Siri's help with getting directions, playing music, writing text messages and placing calls in addition to other functions.
Other consumer-focused applications and Web services are also making their way into cars. Toyota's Entune system, launched last year, brings mobile applications including the Bing search engine, Pandora and the OpenTable restaurant reservation service to a range of its vehicles. Honda's recently revamped car connectivity platform, HondaLink, uses cloud computing to stream music, news and entertainment content to drivers.
While drivers harbor concerns about the effect of Internet access on road safety, the survey indicated that they enjoy the features it offers. Nearly 60 percent of those polled (58 percent) said these technologies make driving more enjoyable. Almost the same percentage (57 percent) said in-car connectivity makes them feel safer.
Technology has changed how people connect, and this extends to their autos, the AAM's Newton said.
"Drivers have this expectation of what it is they're going to do in a vehicle," he said. "It's our job to provide ways for them to do those things in a way that is safe as possible and keeps the eyes on the road."
As better user interface technologies make their way into cars, auto makers are better able to meet these expectations, said Boyadjis. Car companies long wanted to include the Pandora music streaming service in their vehicles, but its "setup requires more than a basic display" and developing the proper interface proved challenging, he said.
Now, with touchscreen displays and voice recognition appearing in cars, those technology integration hurdles have diminished. The interface required to use Pandora "is no different from what you would have on any other touchscreen navigation system," he said.
Drivers both embrace and fear in-car connectivity systems, because current cars offer technology not found in recent models and this presents a learning curve, Boyadjis said.
Cars from the 2000s had "rotary knobs and basic controls," he said. "That doesn't exist anymore. We've reached a level where we've got a more complex system that has software elements to it and a more complex user interface that people have to learn."
To help educate people, vehicle makers are now including car tech tutorials at their dealerships, Boyadjis said. Ford, for example, teaches buyers how to use the Sync system. Cadillac is offering courses on its new Q system and Lexus is following suit, he said.
Regardless of a driver's technology comfort level, everyone needs to take the time to understand their car's technology.
"It doesn't matter if you are an expert or a novice. There is still a learning curve," Boyadjis said. "Getting into a vehicle is no longer about buckling your seat belt."
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