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Are Cars Getting Too Smart?

An industry debates new auto technology

Auto manufacturers are grappling with how to make high-tech gadgetry more user-friendly. Recent consumer complaints about Ford's on-board computer system, MyFord Touch, led to a downgrading of the automaker by Consumer Reports and J.D. Powers & Associates. Ford is now addressing issues with the system that has two five-way switch pads on the steering wheel and multiple screen displays.

Lack of standardization in today's sophisticated technology also ramps up the potential for distraction, says Reimer. "Every manufacturer's system is different — and nobody gets any training before they get behind the wheel."

Through trial and error (and studying the manual) Halle Schliesmann finally mastered the voice-activated navigation, temperature controls and hands-free phone link in her month-old Honda Pilot SUV. "I press a button on the steering wheel and say, 'Cabin temperature 68 degrees' or, 'Call home,' " says Schliesmann, 49, a Phoenix kindergarten teacher. "The learning curve was steep, but now I love it."

Some critics say that, more than computers on wheels, vehicles are turning into smartphones on wheels, loaded with infotainment systems that keep occupants connected to their social networks (and attract younger, tech-savvy buyers). Bluetooth technology allows electronic devices to communicate wirelessly, meaning that you can command your car to check for sport scores and movie listings, get a weather report or play Lady Gaga.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation have chastised automakers for designing cars that enable radios, cellphones, navigation systems and other devices to run smoothly in the car. "We feel very strongly that just because you can do something in a vehicle — like typing on a keypad while the car is in motion — should you do it while driving?" says David Strickland, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration administrator.

Any activity — applying mascara, reading a map or talking on a cellphone — is distracting, says Amy N. Ship, M.D., assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. There is evidence, she says, that using a cellphone may be as risky as driving drunk. Ship routinely asks her patients if they use a cellphone while driving — even hands-free systems. "If the patient doesn't seem to understand the risk, I might ask, 'How would you feel if your surgeon were operating on you while he's talking on a hands-free phone?' "

Next: Cars that use wireless technology to talk to each other. >>

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