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Much to the dismay of safety advocates, technology giants such as Google and Intel have started focusing their attention on installing sophisticated Internet-connected computers in the dashboards of cars. The first wave of the new technology, coined "infotainment systems", is expected to hit the market this year. The companies displayed this new technology, such as 10-inch screens above the gearshift showing high-definition videos, 3-D maps, car information, such as the fuel level, and Web pages, at the Consumer Electronics Show this past week. While drivers will not be able to access such features as video and other functions while the car is moving, they will still be able to access such features as restaurant reviews and the covers of albums with the tap of a finger. One system, due out this fall from Audi, allows drivers to pull up information on a specific topic while they drive. For example, they would be allowed to pull up a Wikipedia article on the New York Knicks while they are on the way to the basketball game. Another new system by Ford will behave a lot like a PC and will have two USB ports, a place to plug in a keyboard, a 4.2 inch touch screen which will display cell phone callers and music information, and an eight inch screen displaying web pages and control panels.

Safety advocates claim the companies behind these "infotainment systems" are completely disregarding mounting research that shows the risks of distracted driving and to a growing national debate about the use of mobile devices in automobiles and how to prevent the thousands of wrecks and injuries this distraction causes annually. Researches at Harvard, for example, found that even in 2003, when fewer people were multi-tasking in cars, motorists talking on cellphones caused 2,600 fatal accidents and 570,000 accidents involving injuries a year. Another study at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute showed that the risks of wrecks rises exponentially when drivers look away from the road. Technology and car companies say safety is still a priority to them and they are working on technology, such as voice commands, that can help make things safer. They argue they are only giving consumers what they want, and the things smartphones and the Internet have trained them to expect. The companies also contend that the new technology could also make the automobiles safer by helping predict dangerous driving conditions.

To to this writer, these "infotainment systems" are scary and potentially very unsafe. And, having litigated automobile defect cases on several occasions in the past, I predict that these systems will give rise to either future legislation or litigation, or both, for better or for worse, depending upon which side of the coin you view the situation. Texting and emailing from "smart" phones is enough of a distraction (not to mention talking on a cell phone), but having another distraction in the vehicle is asking for trouble, especially for less experienced drivers. I hope that the automobile manufacturers do everything reasonably possible to prevent these systems from being accessed while the vehicle is being operated, otherwise, I fear some tragic outcomes.

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