A Canadian study says the impaired driving abilities of motorists using cellular phones is equivalent to driving with a .10 blood alcohol level.
If so, the Internet-connected vehicle of the near future could pose the potential risk of happy hour on wheels.
If cell phone use in moving vehicles is distracting now, what's going to happen when drivers, using on- board information systems, can send and receive e-mail, check stock prices and surf the information highway while driving down the real highway?
Auto and computer industry executives addressed that possible peril during a panel discussion at the Automotive & Transportation Interiors Expo at Cobo Convention Center in Detroit.
They agree safety is a prime concern in the development of on-board information technology.
Such stuff is already here with GPS navigation systems and services such as GM's OnStar. But that's just a start. On-board integrated information systems are expected to be a $50 billion industry by mid-decade.
"Drivers want the information. It's up to us to give it to them in a safe way," says Michael J. Maloney, Lear Corp.'s vice president of advanced electronics.
However he adds, "I admit I look at my PDA (personal digital assistant) when I drive now. It's risky, but how many people do it?"
The safety buck stops with the original equipment manufacturer, acknowledges Karenann Terrell, director of e-vehicles for General Motors Corp.'s e-GM venture.
Automakers are the ones who would take the risks if they load up their products with complicated, overly distracting information systems which take a driver's eyes off the road and hands off the wheel, she says.
"We adhere to a safe and simple philosophy," she says. "One, that means keeping the vehicle between the lines.
Two, it means systems with a minimal number of steps which don't require 'menu-ing' your way to a multitude of tasks."
She cites OnStar as a safe and simple system with only a few buttons to push and a voice-activated phone.
Society and industry must work together to make sure the "connected" car of the future does not become a rolling risk, says Gonzalo Bustillo, director of business development for Microsoft's emerging technologies group.
"The automotive consumer six years down the road wants to be connected. It's our responsibility as an industry to make sure that's done safely and securely," says Mr. Bustillo.
Meanwhile, expect government to impose restrictions in the name of traffic safety, says Thomas VandenBussche, SmartMove Corp.'s director of business development.
One such regulation could be that in-car computer screen displays of text would only work if the vehicle is in park.
"You can't put up a convertible top when the car is moving, and we can live with that," says Mr. Maloney.
Ms. Terrell says of potential legislation on the use of in-vehicle computer equipment, "We learned over the years that it is better to cooperate than retaliate."
It's not a question of whether vehicle information systems will become popular, says Mr. Bustillo.
"It's already happening," he says while predicting explosive growth.
Ms. Terrell notes that GM's OnStar system already has one million subscribers. OnStar debuted on Cadillacs in 1996. Soon it will be available on Chevrolets on up, she says.
Mr. Maloney says some of the system applications of the near future haven't been developed yet.
He expects consumers will personalize their on-board systems, rather than equip their vehicles with gadgetry they don't expect to use.
What shape and form the hardware will take is open to debate, says Roland Ehniss, president of VDO's information systems division.
For instance, his firm developed a concept instrument panel with a navigation system map screen right in the middle, where the speedometer traditionally is now..
VDO researchers were sure customer focus groups would hate that configuration. Instead, they loved it.
Says Mr. Ehniss, "We thought that no way will people like this. We were really surprised at how enthused they were."
General Motors Corp. hopes to enhance its ambitious e-GM venture by buying 10% of Reynolds & Reynolds, which supplies computer systems to the auto industry in general and dealerships in particular.
GM sees many advantages to acquiring an equity stake, valued at about $200 million, in the Dayton, OH firm.
Two main advantages are:
Developing a build-to-order system which would allow custom-made vehicles to be delivered to customers in a matter of days. But that's years away, acknowledges GM.
Enhancing information and dealer management systems to improve customers' on-line and in-store experiences.
Dealers' operating costs will be lowered and customer satisfaction will improve because of the GM-Reynolds alliance, says William Lovejoy, GM vice president of sales, service and marketing.
He envisions providing GM's 8,000 dealerships with background data on customers and their vehicles.
Reynold & Reynolds President Lloyd "Buzz" Waterhouse says dealers can use such information to establish a better relationship with on-line shoppers for when they eventually visit the dealership.
He says on-line shoppers dislike entering a dealership and being greeted like strangers, even though they've been interacting with the store's website.
He adds, "This will help provide a link between the on-line and off-line experience. So that when I walk into that dealership showroom, I'm greeted, and people know who I am...and chances are I'm ready to be sold an automobile that day.
"That's a very powerful notion. It takes cost out of the system, improves efficiency and more importantly it really builds loyalty with the consumer."