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Connected cars become smartphones on wheels

There's plenty of new automotive technology on display at the Chicago Auto Show this week.
There's plenty of new automotive technology on display at the Chicago Auto Show this week.

It has a touchscreen, voice prompts, Internet search, GPS navigation, and apps. While this sounds like your standard smartphone, it’s actually today’s car. Automakers are scrambling to rollout new models that will let consumers bring the full cell experience behind the wheel. It’s a trend that has many industry observers wondering if drivers are becoming too distracted as they barrel down the highway at 65 miles per hour.

At press previews for the Chicago Auto Show last Thursday and Friday, the media was given a tour through automotive technology that at times seemed more like an electronics conference than a car exhibition. Here’s the Tesla Model S with a touchscreen (17 inches) bigger than those on many laptops. There goes the BMW 5 Series luxury sedan which delivers weather, news, travel information, online search and a personalized webcam. Step right up and gaze at the new Ford F-150 truck where you can make calls, compose text messages, and synch your music playlist without taking your hands off the wheel.

This is just a small sample of the features that new car models are offering. An intuitive hand gesture screen (Infiniti), mobile apps that can lock/unlock your doors (Mercedes), and a Wi-Fi system that lets drivers create a mobile hotspot (Dodge, Audi), add to the growing list of technology innovations on display in the cavernous, snowbound McCormick Convention Center this week (the show runs through February 17).

“We need cars that are doing the right thing for the consumer,” said Peggy Smedley of Connected World. Smedley held a press conference last Thursday on the show floor to announce six “Connected Cars of the Year,” an awards event her magazine started in 2012.

The increasing demand for in-vehicle technology has left automakers to grapple with a new problem: should the technology be brought-in or built-in?

It’s not yet clear how much consumers want to synch their smartphones to the vehicle and run nearly everything through that device, or rely on technology (such as Internet connectivity) inside the car. This is still very much a work in progress.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last month, GM announced that all Chevrolet models will have a built-in 4G LTE connection. But this did not set off a mad rush by automakers to follow the trend, as evidenced by what’s on display in Chicago. Many are waiting to see whether consumer demand for higher levels of technology will drive new car sales and how.

Not addressed at the Chicago Auto Show was the important matter of cyber security. When you start downloading apps or creating mobile hot spots, the risk factor for hacking and malware goes up pretty quickly. Whether carmakers recognize this as a potential problem remains to be seen.

Last summer, a research team showed how easily they could disable power steering, brakes, and speedometer controls in two different cars. They could also hijack the steering. Publicly, automakers say they are confident their car systems are safe from malicious attacks, but with the addition of every new connected feature, the door for increased vulnerability opens a little wider.

At the first Chicago Auto Show in 1901, attendees got a chance to test drive the first “horseless carriages” on a track inside an exhibition hall. Automakers at the time wanted to reassure a skeptical public that the new cars were safe. More than a century later, people are flocking to see the latest auto models with driving features more astounding than anything seen before. But questions about safety in today’s increasing connected era still remain.

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