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Time to call a halt on in-car infotainment?

The other night I caught the end of a ‘fly-on-the-backseat’ motorway police show. The crew involved had attended a bunch of accidents on motorways and the policeman was making the point that on our crowded motorways it only takes a moment’s inattention to the view ahead at 70mph to run into the vehicle ahead and cause a pile-up.

Yet what is the in-car infotainment industry relentlessly pursuing?

Yes, it’s more and more ways of distracting the driver from the job of actually driving the vehicle he’s in.

The latest system to catch my eye is Ford’s ‘AppLink’ system that’s being built into the dashboard of its latest cars. It allows drivers to control apps on their Android, iPhone or BlackBerry smartphone using the car’s built-in voice recognition system, or the controls mounted on the dashboard and steering column.

To quote the article:

“The car connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and gives the driver full control over their apps, without ever having to touch the smartphone and potentially incur the wrath of the local constabulary.”

One of the apps a music player:

“Ford’s system allows the driver to select playlists, skip to the next track, give songs the thumbs up, and even purchase tracks using nothing more than voice commands or, say, the next track button that normally controls the CD player on the steering wheel.

“Everything is beautifully integrated. The dashboard display shows the track name and artist currently playing, for example, while the car’s radio preset buttons are automatically mapped to the user’s favourite Pandora radio stations. And if the driver decides to do something stupid, like pick up the smartphone and attempt to control the app from the touchscreen while they’re moving, they’re met with a “locked” screen.”

So, the driver can’t actually use the touchscreen, but he can use voice control or the steering wheel buttons to scroll around his playlist, whilst looking cover art and track name at the screen.

Does the author of this article really think that deciding online which track to buy is an appropriate activity behind the wheel of a couple of tonnes of speeding car, that is somehow less ‘stupid’ than trying to use a touchscreen on the move?

But it’s not just an enhanced music player, arguably one that’s safer than scrabbling around under the passenger seat for the CD or cassette you’ve just dropped on the floor. Oh no, far from it.

“Ford is rolling out AppLink across all its models in North America, and plans to extend the system to Europe at a later date. The Ford spokesman told me that the company has “hundreds of app developers” interested in joining the system.”

I can just see a voice-activated Twitter app allowing drivers to add “now driving up the M1” to the existing millions of inane messages that flood the system already. How about updating your Facebook status online?

Do Ford really think this is appropriate technology to hand to a driver?

“Alongside AppLink, Ford is also turning its cars into Wi-Fi hotspots by allowing users to plug USB 3G dongles into the dashboard, engaging a built-in router that allows passengers in the back to use their laptops, for example.”

Sounds more reasonable at first sight. But just in case you’re thinking that this technology will be restricted to luxury cars so the bored executive will be online sitting safely in the back seat of the car, Ford isn’t planning to roll this out only on high-end luxury cars, but everyday runarounds such as the Ford Fiesta too.

More to the point, do the various safety bodies around the world who are busy hammering out yet more legislation on driving standards, emissions regulations, anti-tampering laws and all the rest really have nothing to say about these developments?

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