The connected car conference panel discussed how to make connected cars safe.

Connected Car Conference 2014: Will Connected Cars Distract Us, Or Make Us More Safe?

Automotive and technology insiders gathered to discuss the future of cars at C3, a one-day connected car conference on June 24.

This article is part of Curiousmatic’s coverage of the annual New York consumer electronics fair CE Week.

As we’ve written about previously, cars with built-in Internet connections are already being produced, and they may soon be required to connect to each other.

It’s a technology that shows a lot of promise, from saving gas with improved mileage to saving lives by correcting human driving errors. However, connected cars are still in the infancy stage.

“There’s still a lot of hurdles to overcome,” said Doug Newcomb, chair of the Connected Car Conference, in the opening remarks to the panel discussions, which centered on driver safety and the inevitability of self-driving cars.

Distracted drivers?

As people have adapted to a digital lifestyle, they’ve naturally brought it with them into their cars.

More than 90% of consumers bring their phones with them while driving, either in their hand, lap, or cup holders, said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of Public Affairs of the Auto Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

This statistic obviously is cause for concern over distracted drivers. As more connected technology makes its way into the car, the industry is working on making it distraction-free, either through voice commands, heads-up-display (which all panelists seemed to agree was far off), and steering wheel commands.

“AM/FM is the holy grail,” said George Lynch,VP of Automotive Business Development at online radio company Pandora, citing regular radio’s one-click ease of use. “Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road, that’s been our motto since day one,” adding that his department is focused on encouraging safe ways to interact with devices.

However, as pointed out by Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association and moderator of the discussion, only a fraction of total accidents are caused by  distractions

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this: distraction was reported (pdf) in 11% of fatal crashes in the U.S.

According to Bergquist, 90% of crashes involve driver error, many of which could be prevented by driver-assist technology.

Or assisted drivers?

Panelists at the connected car conference discussed solutions to distracted driving.
Photo by Curiousmatic.

Emerging technologies include vehicles using radar and lidar technology to get a sense of their environment, automatic braking, and lane detection.

David Zuby, chief research officer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said his organization is launching a campaign in September encouraging consumers to adopt this technology.

Speaking on behalf of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Chief Counsel Kevin Vincent concurred.

“We see technology as the solution, not the problem,” he said.

NHTSA’s New Car Assessment Program, which grant vehicles safety ratings, extra points are given for driver-assist technologies.

How are connected cars being regulated?

Shapiro, the moderator of the discussion, raised the concern that increased regulation could stifle innovation in the field.

Currently, guidelines issued by the NHTSA state that in-car systems should not necessitate that the driver take the eyes off the road or hands off the wheel for more than 2 seconds, and that the task shouldn’t take longer than 12 seconds.

However, Vincent stressed that the NHTSA’s guidelines are voluntary, and that manufacturers are not mandated to follow them.

Bergquist, representing the automotive industry, said her organization supported the voluntary guidelines.

A move towards autonomous cars?

However, as noted by Doug Newcomb in the opening statement, “it’s not a question of if, but when” we will have self-driving cars, as computers and sensors in cars become more and more sophisticated.

Several such initiatives were brought up, including Google’s project, Caterpillar’s autonomous dump trucks, and Volvo’s plan to test 100 self-driving cars in Gothenburg by 2017.

“Autonomous vehicles are the Borg, you know, ‘resistance is futile,’ said Chuck Tannert, automotive/tech journalist for FastCo and moderator of the discussion.

It seems almost inevitable, as cars move from being a tool you can use to get from A to B, to a personal infotainment system that can drive you wherever you want.

Safety standards for those cars, however, is still some time off: the NHTSA has issued a preliminary policy document (pdf) on autonomous vehicles, but the research is still in progress.

Ole Skaar