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Are Cars Smarter Than We Are?

The Hyundai Sonata Hybrid allowed me to check out baseball scores while I was driving.

Cars are getting smarter, and that’s a good thing. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety credits electronic stability control, which helps prevent skids and rollovers, with making SUV drivers less likely to die in a crash than drivers of cars. In the past year, I’ve tested cars that can stop themselves when they detect a likely crash, cars that can maintain a set distance from the car in front of them while cruising, cars that warn of impending collisions and cars that can call emergency responders if a collision occurs. Google is even working on cars that can drive themselves.

During the past year, I’ve also driven cars that have made it easy for me to make phone calls, get directions, listen to music wirelessly, get weather reports (including radar maps), find restaurants and read their Zagat reviews, get sports scores, get movie times and read my horoscope. While a lot of the tech that automakers are stuffing into cars is making us safer, it’s also making us stupider. I wrote recently about working around the Bluetooth system in a VW Routan, even though I knew doing so was unsafe. If someone who is committed to educating consumers about car safety (and so conscientious about safety that she buckles in her purse to keep it from injuring anyone in an accident) is willing to work around in-car safeguards, what’s the average consumer going to do with the smorgasbord of tech options right in their dashboard?

Each car company has its own rules and tricks for trying to keep drivers safe while delivering the tech today’s car buyers want. Ford says they’re one of the most conservative, requiring drivers to use voice commands for navigation while the car is in motion, and disabling some functions, like horoscopes. Hyundai models I’ve driven have let me look up real-time sports scores using a touchscreen while the car was in motion. Acura let me use the navigation system to find restaurants and read reviews while I was driving. BMW stands by its much-maligned iDrive system’s knob controller, because they feel it’s safer for drivers than a touchscreen.

At a recent industry roundtable on in-car connectivity, Tom Bologa, vice president, engineering U.S. for BMW North America, pointed out that automakers are obliged to build in-car connectivity systems that can be used safely, not ones that will be used safely. That’s up to the consumer. After all, people were finding ways to have car accidents long before the first text message was sent.

What do you think? Are carmakers tempting drivers with too many infotainment and tech options, or is it up to drivers to only use that tech when it’s safe?

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