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I Brake for Reality

Such possibilities make for heady times from Detroit to Munich. But several issues could roadblock telematics’ promise. None is potentially more important than legislative efforts to curb driver cell-phone use for safety reasons. Portugal has banned drivers from using mobile phones, even headset or speakerphone models, and several European countries enforce hands-free rules. Similar action in the United States-especially if it limits how much data drivers can receive-could put the brakes on telematics development.

All car companies are expressing concern. Last fall, Ford Motor announced plans to build a $10 million simulator lab at its sprawling research facility in Dearborn, MI, to study how much information and what type-aural or on-screen-drivers can safely handle. Explains Mike Shulman, principal staff engineer of Ford’s vehicle electronics systems department, “What we worry about is this ‘cognitive load’ that people talk about….We worry, what is that going to do with safety?”

Industry watcher Heidingsfelder argues that the fact car companies are only now seriously asking such questions may slow telematics’ adoption. And there are other curves in the road ahead. Making the technology robust is one, acknowledges DaimlerChrysler’s Buckley. “The concept cars, we never drive them over 39 miles per hour. But do high bandwidth and voice recognition work as well at 70 mph, with the windows down?” There’s also the question of what people actually want. The automakers’ consumer studies show widespread interest in navigation and emergency assistance. But paying extra for Internet access or e-mail interests far fewer drivers.

This is why, grand visions aside, some in the field feel telematics will evolve along the same lines as airbags or antilock brakes: essential, good selling points, but rarely used. “Some people buy an airbag system, and they never experience it their whole life, but by God they wouldn’t buy a car without it,” says Ralph Wilhelm, the recently retired product-line manager of worldwide telematics for Delphi Automotive Systems, a prime supplier of OnStar’s inner workings. The same, he expects, may hold for telematics, with people using it in a pinch, but avoiding most applications.

In some senses, it hardly matters. Because either way, more applications are coming-and for better or worse the car will be increasingly linked to the rest of our information-rich lives. Which means hitting the road to get away from it all will be harder and harder to do. Unless you want a quiet place to check e-mail.

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