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Wednesday, October 27, 2004

For some drivers, smart cars do connect

You can now can check your e-mail, view Web sites and even watch television from the comfort of the driver’s seat—that is, if you live in Europe or in Japan.

“The car is an island, isolating its user,” said Claudio San Pedro, senior vice president of the Fiat Business Line, Fiat Auto, in Italy.  “To change that, we are aligning our cars with technology as used in homes and offices.”  Owners of Fiat’s Stilo model, a moderately priced hatchback, can use the optional Connect service to make phone calls and either listen to a voice recite their e-mail messages or read them directly on a screen.  “Even while driving, you can also look at the Web, but we do not recommend it,” San Pedro said.

That option and other features available in Europe and Japan make auto executives in the United States shudder.  They say they must worry about lawsuits rather than whether their customers can order from Amazon while driving.  “In the United States, driver distraction is a bigger thing than in Europe,” said Norbert Seitner, head of product planning for Audi North America.  “People in America tend to sue companies very easily,” he added, if something goes wrong with the technology.

That is why many car navigation systems in the United States display terms and conditions on the screen before they can be used, a requirement not found in other markets.

Safety first Besides nervousness over lawsuits, the American auto market has also been more cautious in offering features like television or karaoke, which are widely available in other countries.  Some features will probably not be available here for years, if ever.

Executives contend that most American drivers are more interested in advanced safety systems than in entertainment options.

In Europe, TV fanatics do not have to worry about missing their favorite shows.  In many Audi models sold there, drivers can use the same screen that powers the navigation system to watch broadcast television.  Yet even with a feature that shuts off the video once a car moves faster than three miles an hour, Audi has no intention of offering it here.

Fear of legal action has also stopped Toyota from offering its Intelligent Parking Assist feature, which is now available on the hybrid gas-electric Prius model sold in Japan.  This device automatically parks the car, maneuvering the Prius backward and into the space.  To activate it, the driver first pulls alongside the forward vehicle, then drags a picture of a flag marker and parking triangle on the car’s touch-screen display, until they are positioned where the vehicle should wind up.  But the system cannot respond to changing conditions, like the vehicle in front suddenly backing into the space the Prius is about to enter.  Nor can the system respond to unexpected road obstacles—a soccer ball rolling into the gutter or a child running in the way.

While the system seems ideal for congested streets like New York’s, “we have no plans for the U.S.,” said Jon Bucci, corporate manager for advanced technology at Toyota Motor Sales. 

It is not just fear of lawsuits that prompts different gear for different markets.  Terrorism has also created a switch in what consumers deem to be necessary equipment as they drive.  It is the ability to communicate, not to be entertained, that seems to matter most to Americans, some industry officials have concluded.

“Safety and security are our winning features,” said Terry Sullivan, vice president of communications for OnStar, the communications system owned by General Motors and available on 50 of its models as well as those of other manufacturers.  “While customers can hear their e-mail using OnStar’s Virtual Advisor service, the number that do is minuscule, in the low thousands,” Sullivan said.  “More telling is that 80 percent of its 2.7 million customers buy the air-bag notification system, which sends a signal to a central office when a car’s air bag is deployed, to dispatch emergency services.

Posted on 10/27
Motor IndustryPermalink