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Full speed ahead for connected cars, but are they going the wrong way?

Mitsubishi's EMIRAI concept car includes a touchscreen where a driver is supposed to write commands.
Mitsubishi's EMIRAI concept car includes a touchscreen where a driver is supposed to write commands.

Why is it, Tarun Bhatnagar was wondering, that the "beautiful screen in the instrument cluster of my rental car can't provide me with a connected and safer driving experience?"

Bhatnagar, Google's director of Maps for Business, was describing how he used his phone's navigation app to get to the Los Angeles Auto Show last week. For the whole drive, he said, he had to balance the phone on his lap.

"That needs to change," Bhatnagar said in a keynote address at the show, which prominently featured a pavilion devoted to car tech.

Finding ways for drivers to safely use their cherished electronics is big business: What's called the connected car industry is projected to grow at a rate of 35 percent through 2019, to $132 billion, Transparency Market Research, an international market analytics firm, calculated last month.

The idea is to keep drivers' hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. But safety experts insist that's beside the point — your brain simply isn't built to concentrate on two (or more) activities at once, so it's impossible to make electronics safe to use behind the wheel, no matter how much money and technology you throw at it.

"All this creates a dilemma for automakers," acknowledged Derek Kuhn, vice president of QNX Software, which makes an operating system used in many of the leading car systems. "How do they place a bet on the future?"

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The challenge, according to Kuhn, is to develop "a balanced environment where smartphones bring apps into the car, consumers enjoy the integration they desire, and automakers deliver a consistent, branded experience."

Scores of companies are spending a lot of money to meet that challenge:

• Ford Motor Co.'s Sync technology — which lets drivers make calls, play music, get directions and even send and receive texts, all by voice — will be available in more than 90 percent of Ford's 2014 vehicles, the company said at the L.A. Auto Show, where Jim Farley, the company's global vice president for marketing, called your car "the ultimate mobile device."

• General Motors Co.'s OnStar embedded system, which does many of the same things, will connect with your smartphone so you can run apps by voice at the wheel.

• Apple Inc. is already putting "eyes-free" versions of Siri and iTunes in some cars, designed to let drivers control them with buttons on the steering wheel. But Apple has far grander plans — it hopes to turn your car into a full four-wheeled Apple computer by embedding iOS 7 beginning next year.

Other in-the-works or planned technologies could turn your car into something out of "The Matrix" or "Minority Report":

• A startup called The NeXt Co. is raising money to produce Heads UP — which wirelessly projects your smartphone's screen onto your windshield, where you can use it by voice and gestures:

• Mitsubishi Electric is already on the second generation of its EMIRAI concept car, which senses your surroundings and biometrics and can pop up any of 18 function buttons on the steering wheel as it determines you need them. It even includes an armrest touch screen where you're supposed to write out commands with your finger.

• Government-funded researchers at Germany's Free University of Berlin are working on the "BrainDriver" — a soft head covering that reads your brain waves and translates them into driving commands. It's still in the demonstration phase; unfortunately, in road tests there's still "a slight delay between the intended command and the actual reaction of the car," the researchers say.

German researchers are working on a sensor array you wear on your head so the car can read your brain waves.
German researchers are working on a sensor array you wear on your head so the car can read your brain waves.

It's exciting stuff, but skeptics point to more than a decade of research that establishes that dividing your concentration on anything but the task of driving creates too much competition for mental processing.

This is true not just when you take eyes off the road to deal with a beeping, brightly lighted screen, they argue, but even when you listen to information without diverting your gaze. That means wearable tech like BrainDriver and Google Glass likely won't solve things.

Researchers call it "inattention blindness": You may be looking where you're going, but you don't really see it because your brain is crunching different data. That's true for simply listening to the radio, which can delay your reaction time by a half-second, researchers at the University of Utah concluded in June in a report for AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety (.pdf).

(Half a second might seem trivial, but "a fraction-of-a-second delay would make the car travel several additional car lengths," the congressionally chartered National Safety Council found in a 2010 survey of data on distracted driving (.pdf). "When a driver needs to react immediately, there is no margin for error.")

Talking on the phone hands-free and using devices through speech recognition further lengthen that delay, the Utah report found. What makes the new data especially alarming is that the study controlled for manual distraction; that is, all of the tests specifically recorded tasks that drivers could perform without taking their hands off the wheel.

"This clearly suggests that the adoption of voice-based systems in the vehicle may have unintended consequences that adversely affect traffic safety," the report concluded.

Research like that is why the National Transportation Safety Board is pushing Congress and state legislatures to ban all drivers from using electronics, including phones — even if they use hands-free technology.

If anything, said Robert Rosenberger, an assistant professor at the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, whizbang tech like iOS in the car and BrainDriver makes things worse because "it encourages people not to be cautious."

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"They send the wrong message to drivers," Rosenberger told NBC News. "It implies to drivers that these things are safe."

David L. Strayer of the University of Utah, a lead researcher on the AAA study, put it more simply:

"Just because you can do it doesn't mean you should do it," he said.

Daniella Silva of NBC News contributed to this report.

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