The entertainment options were fabulous at the Chicago Auto Show this year - and that was just inside the cars.
Automakers have outfitted their vehicles with cutting-edge technology that goes way beyond the now-common mapping and music options. New cars these days act like smartphones on wheels. Drivers can use voice commands to operate their devices, listen to text messages being automatically read aloud and connect to phone applications, including a new Domino's-Ford app for ordering pizza on the go.
As more drivers simultaneously take a sharp curve and update their status on Facebook, an obvious problem looms: Distracted driving already kills nine people and injures more than a thousand people every day in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Downloading songs while at the wheel can't help.
It's time for a national conversation on this issue. So kudos to U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat, who held a summit this month on overconnected driving.
Rockefeller got together the likes of Google and General Motors, Samsung and Toyota, to raise awareness and deliver a verbal warning: "I think it is irresponsible for companies to feed into consumers' almost pathological need for connectivity without regard for the safety implications," the senator said. He also asked the companies to develop a "default" that would enable parents of teen drivers to "flat-out disable nonessential activities like talking on the phone, texting and updating social-networking profiles."
A balance is needed. Rockefeller is rightly concerned that connectivity can pose unreasonable hazards. At the same time, we hope government resists the impulse to overregulate. Trying to outlaw certain automotive technology could backfire by discouraging pro-safety breakthroughs in the future.
Along with expanding entertainment options on the road, information technology is transforming the driving experience for the better. New vehicles are beginning to communicate with each other and with the transportation grid. Innovations such as lane-deviation warnings and forward-crash avoidance systems are helping to save lives.
The U.S. Department of Transportation this month said it will require automakers to install technology that enables cars and trucks to avoid crashes by transmitting their location, speed and direction. Those vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems could reduce accidents among sober drivers by an astonishing 70 percent or 80 percent, the agency estimates. No timetable has been set for a rollout.
Regulators can encourage further experimentation. Consider Ford's efforts to popularize a system that can monitor a diabetic driver's blood-sugar levels, or alert asthma and allergy sufferers when pollen levels rise. Safety features, or distractions? We can't say - yet.
The same goes for systems, still being refined, to help drivers avoid road hazards and traffic jams, find open parking spaces and safely reduce following distances, which could increase the density and speed of traffic during urban rush hours.
These ideas could be adopted in relatively short order. But the benefits of any new doodad need to be weighed against the imperative of making sure drivers mind the road.
Like so much of the digital world, car-borne technology is changing fast. Government watchdogs and corporate innovators should work together to accelerate progress, while keeping motorists safe.