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Rumble Seat

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By this time next year, several car models will be available with wireless-style Internet connectivity, allowing drivers to check e-mail as well as stock prices, and browse news, sports and weather content in reduced WML format. Some systems will play MP-3 audio files or download same onto flash cards; exchange address book information and audio memo files with their Palm Pilots and ... did we just hit a dog?

You see the problem. If you thought cell-phone-addled commuters were dangerous (and they are; according to one study, phoning drivers are four times more likely to be involved in an accident), just wait until cars go wireless. This summer, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is holding hearings to discuss the implications of road-going electronic distractions. Citing the "breathtaking speed" with which information and entertainment technologies are being added to cars, deputy director Rosalyn G. Millman warned that, compared to cell phones, "The plethora of gadgets and gizmos that are being designed into vehicles ... may be the much bigger threat of tomorrow."

For their part, vehicle manufacturers, hoping to head off regulatory proscription, are vowing to make the next generation of infotainment devices less distracting. Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, suggested that hands-free design relying on voice-recognition and synthesis technology would be key to safer car-connectivity.

NHTSA was ready for that. "Hands-free is not risk-free," Millman asserted. "NHTSA research and other research clearly show that we must be concerned with manual distraction, visual distraction and cognitive distraction."

The current state of the art is the Cadillac Infotainment system, which will debut in all its wireless glory in a few weeks. I had a special test drive of the system last week. Well, actually, I didn't drive anywhere. The vehicle, an Infotainment-equipped Cadillac Sedan DeVille, was parked in a lot near Cadillac's offices. That certainly cut down on my cognitive distraction.

General Motors--a company burned a time or two by government regulation--has been very careful to make the Cadillac system as hands-free as possible. The heart of the system is a Delphi-sourced "Communiport" flat-screen display with keypad and logic buttons, working in concert with a Bose audio system, DVD/CD drive (allowing future software upgrades), a wireless phone system, GPS navigation, flash-card drive and an IR port.

What, no espresso machine?

Most of the data-centric functions of the system--e-mail, news, address book--can be summoned by simply calling out a series of commands, like "Read e-mail," "Select," "Next." The material is read out in a stilted computer voice that sounds like Mrs. Stephen Hawking in too-tight shoes. Operators can command the address book to locate a name and then send the address to the navigation system, which will then plot a course to the person's address. You can also tell the system to call the person--"Dial so-and-so," says you; Home? Work? asks the computer--to let them know you are coming.

Because the data transfer between car and ISP wireless provider (yet to be named at the time of our interview) occurs at a leisurely analog rate of 9600 baud, drivers may become impatient and want to read their mail right away, before they stop rolling. The system has an interlock that prevents reading e-mail while the car is moving.

Like a Palm Pilot, the web-clipping feature can only seek out and capture content boiled down to WML format. It too can only be read once the car is stopped, though it can be read to the driver at any time. However, if the 15-meg system is occupied with some heavy crunching, like calculating a new navigation route around heavy traffic, the synth-voice can stammer and stall badly. Memory upgrades are easily accomplished by buying bigger CE flash cards.

If at any time the driver should get confused about his choices, he can simply ask, "What can I say?" and a list of "global" commands will be ticked off as a reminder. The system initially requires the driver to "voice" the commands--that is, say them out loud--three times, so that it may take an average of inflection and tone for better recognition.

Cadillac's navigation system is substantially easier to use than some others found in European models. Also, Cadillac rolls in an RDS radio system which displays call letters and station programming format as well as weather and traffic alerts embedded in the signal of so-equipped stations. Both nav and audio systems can be programmed to do everything but sit up and bark. The CD player responds to voice activations, so you can say, "Play disc 1, track 3," and it will comply.

The Cadillac system offers a dizzying array of functions, and that, perhaps, is its biggest problem. The transparency--buzz word for "ease of use"--is currently pretty low. Even those functions that allow eyes-on-the-road, voiced command and control require complicated heuristics of orders. It seems, in a word, distracting. Cadillac's Mike Hichme, e-vehicle manager for GM, knows this is so. "We still have a lot of work to do," he says, "we're on a pretty tight timeline."

At the time of our visit, the graphics for the system were barely roughed in, and the "send/end" button on the steering wheel hadn't been designed. Like Cadillac's ballyhooed Night Vision, this seems like a technology that is just barely ready for the market, and the market is even less ready, I think, for it.

Such are the hazards of being first. As skepticism toward car-connected technologies rises, the trick seems to be building systems that won't overload the old-fashioned, overburdened wetware between the driver's ears.

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