Why Wi-Fi?

Dec 14, 2010

We’ve all seen it. A driver suddenly pulls out in front of us, making a turn across our path and into oncoming traffic. As you hit the brakes in a panic and get closer to the offender, you see the blank look on his face. The arm and hand up near the head tell you: He wasn’t paying attention because he was talking on a cell phone.

Distracted driving is an enormous problem today. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one in six deaths in traffic accidents is from distracted driving. While traffic fatalities have gone down in recent years because of greater awareness of seatbelt use, less drinking and driving, and more safety features in vehicles, the number of fatalities from distracted driving has increased. In 2009, nearly 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with distraction-related fatalities representing 16% of overall traffic fatalities in 2009.

“People [need to] take personal responsibility for the fact that they’re driving a 3,000- or 4,000-pound car,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News. “If you’re looking down at a cell phone for four seconds or a texting device for four seconds, you’re driving the length of a football field without looking at the road.” That’s a scary bit of information.

Interestingly, while a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found 62% of drivers agreed that talking on a cell phone while driving is a hazard, 70% of those admitted to using a cell phone while driving during the past month, and 24% admitted to texting while driving.

Movin’ ‘n’ Googlin’

Auto manufacturers have begun adding more and more electronic content to the accessories in vehicles. Mobile theater and GPS systems were a rarity a few years ago, and very expensive. As their popularity soared, prices came down. Such items are no longer “add-ons” from the accessory industry but have become “mainstream” with units built into the vehicle’s interior assembly. The touch screen on dashboards has become ubiquitous, controlling radio, climate and GPS functions. Bluetooth speakerphones have gone from plug-in, clip-on units to fully integrated with the vehicle’s electronics.

Ford put itself at the vanguard with its SYNC system. It allows a driver or passenger to utilize cell phone features and other vehicle functions with voice commands. The next phase was the introduction of Ford’s Fiesta “Twitter” car, which includes the use of AppLink.

GM has jumped into the fray, expanding its OnStar system. Once the vehicular equivalent of the LifeAlert button (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”), GM quickly realized it needed to make OnStar “hip” if it’s going to get any market traction. As a result, OnStar will be able to use Facebook’s Places application that allows users to be “tracked” by posting their locations to their Facebook page.

According to William Scholar, president, Scholar Intelligent Solutions Inc., Boca Raton, Fla., “Vehicle radio is going Internet. All Ford models equipped with Internet access have the ability to utilize Internet radio. We’re not talking satellite; it’s Internet. There will be one station with all the formats you want to listen to. You will be able to start from home on your favorite station and keep it on, uninterrupted until you arrive at your destination. Videos will stream into vehicle entertainment systems.”

Scholar continued, “Clear Channel, Citadel, and ABC, CBS [and] NBC, have already begun gearing up for this. Interestingly, Howard Stern is leaving satellite radio and going to Internet radio.” Whether you enjoy Stern or not, it’s significant that he’s making the “early adopter” change.

All of this begs the question: How much of this connectivity do we really need?

It seems the answer depends on your demographics. In an informal survey on (where else?) Facebook, I learned among my circle of Facebook friends what they think of onboard electronics. My friends include a mix of young and older, automotive and non-automotive industry people. Interestingly, across the board it seems the older you are, the less interested you are in a lot of the electronic features. GPS is of course popular with all ages. Internet access, voice activated commands via your cell phone -¦ well, let’s just say that it mostly appeals to the under-25 crowd.

In an Automotive News article from Oct. 8, 2010, it was stated: “The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has said [Transportation Secretary] LaHood is focusing too much attention on distracted driving instead of other safety pursuits, released a study last month concluding laws banning handheld texting don’t reduce crashes. The study, using data from four states before and after they enacted anti-texting laws, found the overall number of crashes increased in three of the states.

“The increase may stem from drivers taking their eyes off the road even more as they try to hide their phones from view while texting, Adrian Lund, president of the industry-sponsored group, said in an Oct. 5 interview.”

Telematics: yes or no?

The controversy surrounding these onboard electronics certainly prompts anyone selling them to ask where the industry is heading. We asked some questions from two authorities, Dominique Bonte, Practice Director, Telematics and Navigation of ABI Research and Chris Preuss, president of OnStar.

What about the integration of social media into vehicles? Is it the big problem everyone claims it is?

Bonte: “Social media is here to stay. There’s no stopping them. The challenge is how to get them in the car safely. OEM’s will likely select their apps, and not allow just anything in the vehicles. They will still be subject to a number of limitations, such as switching off when driving.”

Preuss: “Distracted driving is the biggest social imperative since fuel economy. It’s an issue that won’t go away. The millenials [generally, those born after the mid 1970s] are very attached to their devices. They are obsessively connected with their devices.

“A compounding factor that creates more problems: The social expectation to respond. Pulling over is not always the answer – you actually become more of a distraction to others. It drives behaviors that cause others to be two or three hazards instead of one. Kids fighting in the back seat, eating, pets, reading, billboards, are all distractions and can be more than a hands-free device.”

Preuss continues: “We can check stats through OnStar. Without identifying specific drivers, I can access the stats on how many hands-free calls are made and how many airbag deployments there are, which would obviously indicate crashes.

Another observation from Preuss: “We have to look at the next generation of GM buyers and not just put out a fire now. From media reports you would believe there are millions of drivers out there using these technologies and becoming a hazard. Current statistics show 80% of the current population is still looking at a blinking light on their DVD player. Sixty-five percent had access to Bluetooth last year, 80% this year. How many have attempted to link their devices? Only 46%. We can’t over assume that masses of people are out there using these things. However, in the long term, the next generation of GM buyers will be familiar with these features and will want them in their vehicles. Our challenge is to provide them in such a way that they are user-friendly and safe to use.

“One way is to get only the information you need when you need it. All information will be faded out except basic things. When the hand moves to a familiar part of the screen, buttons will light up.”

Another way of preventing problems is to allow programming of functions from outside the vehicle. “We have the ability now to program many functions from your home computer,” adds Preuss. “They are sent to OnStar in your vehicle so when you embark on your trip, everything is already set for you – right down to the radio stations.

“Another possibility is to create an awareness campaign among youth. Attaching a social stigma to distracted driving may do more than all the legislation in the world. If we can help young people to understand they are smarter, cooler, more ‘hip’ for being safety conscious and, conversely, those who engage in risky behavior while driving are ‘losers,’ then we can accomplish the goal of making the use of these devices safe for everyone.”

Are there other safety issues that can be dealt with, or already have been dealt with?

Preuss: “There are already voluntary standards with NHTSA and the OE’s are complying with them. Any action with an electronic device that takes more than two seconds, the device becomes disabled. With OnStar, you can call and the OnStar assistant will download the map for you without you touching the screen. A live person can help you think through things. Despite all the technology, you still need a human. We feel that’s an important safety feature with our system.”

Bonte: “Legislation has to be realistic. Safety issues will not go away. Remote door unlock, remote start – these are useful functions that also improve safety. If the use of a device is made possible without it being a distraction then it can be a useful feature. Listening is not as much a problem as two-way interaction such as having to push buttons on a device to respond or initiate commands.”

Since these onboard electronics can become capable of many functions, what is being done to provide applications?

Bonte: “Autos will have their own applications stores, just as Apple has. Ford Synch already has this – about 1,000 apps. GM is doing the same. Continental, a tier 1 supplier has also announced something similar. The car is a challenge to design user-friendly apps that are safe.”

Preuss: “We have a number of apps already. Phone apps will continue to proliferate. Caution is needed because there are no restrictions and some apps may not necessarily be good for consumers or the vehicle. We’re working on a voice-to-text app from GM. We have engineers who study these things to make sure they are safe before they are deployed. Our engineers work within certain parameters that regulate what should and should not be done within a vehicle. Outside suppliers may not work with those kinds of restrictions so their applications may become a problem.”

With vehicle electronics running applications, connections to the Internet and streaming content, is there a concern about security? What is being done to make sure the integrity of the system is maintained?

Bonte: “You’ve asked the No. 1 question. It has been discussed in great detail by all the auto manufacturers. There is a security issue. By bringing connectivity to the car you bring the same issues as mobile and personal computers. Consequences could be dramatic and damaging. Connectivity brings challenges. Taking control of the car is theoretically feasible. Separating functioning capability from entertainment functions is the key. Maybe it’s necessary to have two SIM cards [Subscriber Identity Module chips that hold personal information for such items as cell phones] to isolate systems. The only issue being talked about by the media right now is applications. The safety/security issue has come to the foreground. Security will be a big issue.”

Preuss: “We address this on two facets: OnStar has been doing a perpetual connection for its service. With open architecture, embedding apps, you’re exposing the vehicle to potential attack. Our systems are secure. We never let any device talk directly to the car, to the vehicle bus or electrical bus. This is the reason you don’t see a lot of Wi-Fi connections to vehicle control. The Safety and Security group in GM/OnStar is constantly pummeling and beating on our system to make sure there are no weaknesses.

“Ford made a big splash with ‘open development’ but they don’t give full access. Crashing an iPhone is one thing. A bad app in a car that causes it to crash is another matter.

“The big question has to be what apps are really necessary?”

A ‘Jetson’ car?

There are tremendous opportunities out there with vehicle electronics. A lot of the gadgetry being used by people today may become necessities in the auto of the future. The challenge will be safety and security. Who knows? We may even see the day when we can be just like George Jetson: Punch in the destination, then sit back while our vehicle whisks us to our destination unattended by human hands.

As OnStar’s Preuss says: “It’s exciting. Things are changing. There are huge potentials for consumers, but we have to sort out how to make them useful and workable.”