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Are connected cars dangerous or a safety feature?

Image: GM Wi-Fi
General Motors

When 18-year-old Aaron Deveau was convicted of vehicular homicide last year, the Massachusetts jury hoped to send a message to young drivers about the dangers of texting behind the wheel. It’s not clear that’s getting across, however.

According to new data from the Governors Highway Safety Association, there was a 19% increase in the number of fatalities among young teen drivers during the first half of 2012, and distracted driving is catching much of the blame. It’s not a problem limited to young motorists, of course. Ray LaHood, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation, has warned of an “epidemic” of distracted driving which various groups have blamed for as much as 16% of all U.S. highway traffic fatalities.

So, why are federal regulators working with the auto industry to put even more electronics in the cars, trucks and crossovers you’ll likely buy in the years ahead? There’s little doubt that motorists want more connectivity, despite the worrisome traffic statistics. But many experts are betting that so-called connected car technologies can be put to work reducing the number of accidents, injuries and deaths on America’s roadways.

During a mobile communications conference in Spain earlier this week, General Motors announced plans to equip “most” of the vehicles it sells in the U.S. with 4G broadband capabilities starting with the 2014 model-year.

Image: GM Wi-Fi
General Motors

Among other things, passengers will be able to tap into an onboard WiFi hot spot that can handle up to eight different cellphones, table and laptop computers and other devices.

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“In addition to allowing consumers to bring in and connect to personal mobile devices, the vehicle will also act as its own mobile device, enabling embedded vehicle capabilities,” says Mary Chan, president, Global Connected Consumer, General Motors.

There are the obvious opportunities to enhance onboard infotainment systems, letting passengers stream music or movies, for example. But there are additional safety and security services that can take GM’s groundbreaking OnStar service to another level, the maker promised. Launched in 1995, it already allows a motorist to open the vehicle’s doors if the keys are locked inside. And the system can automatically call for help if the vehicle is involved in a serious accident.

GM CEO Dan Akerson hopes to reduce the number of trips a motorist might need to make to a dealer, using the partnership with AT&T to remotely monitor a vehicle’s performance and, if necessary, update its onboard software when, say, the engine isn’t running up to par.

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That’s only the beginning, connected car advocates suggest. Even more advanced systems could reduce the nation’s highway death toll by as much as two-thirds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A consortium of automakers and suppliers, working with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the University of Michigan, has begun testing a variety of systems that could allow tomorrow’s car to talk to a roadside communications infrastructure – and even to other cars on the road.

The year-long project can alert motorists to traffic or weather problems. It may also be possible to flash an alert to vehicles approaching an intersection should another car – say, a teen distracted while texting – run a red light.

“The future is connected vehicle-to-vehicle communication,” contends Scott Belcher, president of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, who adds, “Technology is changing the way we operate” a vehicle.

How far technology might take us was signaled by the State of Nevada last year when it approved special licensing for autonomous, or self-driving cars. While Google and other advocates are showing what is possible using advanced cameras, radar and laser sensors, allowing vehicles to talk to one another may be essential if autonomous driving proponents are to achieve their ambitious goals.

Such technology, “a few years ago seemed an impossible dream and is now becoming more plausible,” says Mark Templin, head of the Lexus division at Toyota, which has been involved in a number of connected car programs in the U.S. and Japan.

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Proponents of connected car technologies are currently embroiled in a debate pitting NHTSA against the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC recently approved the use of new WiFi systems in a spectrum of the radio band that automotive safety advocates had hoped would be set aside exclusively for connected car systems.

But few believe this will be a fatal setback. There are other options, as GM’s alliance with AT&T illustrates. Audi has also launched broadband in some of its products and Chrysler is soon to follow.

While motorists will clearly welcome the potential safety benefits makers hope to sell them on the added cost with the same sort of benefits smartphone apps now deliver.

“What if you were alerted when you got into the car that you needed an oil change, told you where you could get you one on the way home, (helped) book it and got you a coupon, too?” asks Joel Kremke, senior vice president at the information service company Covisint, which is working with the auto industry on connected car technology.

Kremke believes there’s a “cultural shift,” as much as a technological one, underway and contends that in the not-too-distant future, motorists will find it as hard to live without a connected car as it has become for many Americans today to live without their smartphones.