The proliferation of in-car entertainment technologies -- Internet routers, smartphone links, MP3 connections, capacitive touch screens, etc. -- are great for selling cars, but they have sparked a serious debate about driver distraction.
That leads to the question: If safety is so important, why are automakers putting these features in vehicles at all?
It's a good question. The same thought apparently occurred to the people at the National Transportation Safety Board, which in December called for the "first-ever nationwide ban on portable electronic devices" -- including cellphones -- for drivers.
Autonet Mobile's in-car router lets occupants surf the Web while the car is moving.
"According to NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents," NTSB chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a press release. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices while driving."
However, the proposal was virtually dead on arrival. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood gave it an almost immediate thumbs-down. Auto blogs generally disliked the concept. "Even LaHood thinks the NTSB mobile electronics ban is flawed," autoblog.com wrote. And radio call-in shows were flooded with calls from unhappy listeners, many of whom were probably phoning in from their cars.
And that, in a nutshell, answers our readers' question about why automakers keep adding these features. Auto executives understand what consumers want. They know how important cellphones are to a segment of the buying public. And no one wants to be the one who took a backward technological step, even if it is for the sake of safety.
"You've got a pull coming from the market and a pushback coming from the government agencies, and the manufacturers are in the middle, trying to figure out what to do," David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Auto Research, told us in an interview.