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Are Web gadgets too distracting in new cars?

June 10, 2011
As consumers clamor for more tools to help them stay connected to online media on the road, automakers are coming under fresh pressure to minimize distracting gadgetry in new cars.
“There’s absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It’s not necessary.”
LaHood is pushing to open new fronts in his long-running campaign against the proliferation of technology-driven diversions. He is urging auto executives to free up advertising money to create public-service announcements that remind motorists to focus on the road, and not to text and drive.
LaHood and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports to him, have the power to curb the info-tainment technology built into cars if they can demonstrate a threat to safety.
BMW begins a spot this month that starts with what appears to be a spoof of overprotective parents, but ends with disturbing images of a mother texting behind the wheel, oblivious to the sport utility vehicle that is about to broadside her car.
BMW North America Chief Executive Jim O’Donnell said the company plans to run the spot, and related print and online advertising, through the end of the year. But he said that agreeing to warn drivers against texting on a hand-held phone doesn’t mean BMW plans to opt-out of the in-car media revolution.
O’Donnell said BMW’s approach is to manage that flow, not cut it off, such as by making brief bursts of information available on head-up displays.
Other automakers also are trying to devise better ways to manage an increasing flow of information and entertainment, while trying to avoid running afoul of LaHood and his auto-safety regulators.
General Motors—still part-owned by the government—is promoting its youth-targeted Chevrolet Cruze with an ad that highlights a Facebook-update feature, delivered by a voice program through the car’s Onstar communication system.
A GM spokesman said Onstar’s Facebook application, which drivers can use with the push of one button while they keep their eyes on the road, is still in the “beta” test phase. No decision has been made to roll it out broadly.
LaHood compares the effort to change public attitudes toward distracted driving to the long-running efforts to change attitudes and behavior related to drinking and driving.