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Connected Car Future on Display in L.A.

Cars will someday be the next smartphones: connected, interactive and indispensable for all our daily tasks.

by Valerie Hamilton - dpa, Berlin / November 19, 2014

(TNS) Nov. 19--LOS ANGELES -- Someday, our cars will play with our kids, navigate our schedules, buy our groceries and give us guided tours while we sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

That's the vision of the not-too-distant future being planned by car designers, mobile developers and computer companies. Cars, they say, will someday be the next smartphones: connected, interactive and indispensable for all our daily tasks.

"It used to be so simple -- P, R, N, D, L, turn the key, use the pedal," said CNET car tech expert Brian Cooley, moderating a panel on the future of interactive automotive technology at the Connected Car Expo in Los Angeles. "Now there are a lot more variables."

Today, drivers use voice control to make mobile calls, or iPhone's Siri to get directions. Smart dashboard monitors remind you when gas is running low, and navigation systems help you find fuel. Mobile data and in-car wi-fi mean passengers, if not drivers, are already connected to the internet.

In the cars of tomorrow, developers say, more processing power, more bandwidth, more sensors and more integration between cars and the digital devices their drivers already use will deliver more media, more information, and more interactivity -- the difference between yesterday's call-only mobiles and today's smartphones and tablets.

In developers' imaginations, at least, the possibilities are limitless.

Cloud-connected, sensor-rich cars could react to screaming kids with a backseat game; analyze your daily drive to rejigger your schedule; read tension with facial recognition and suggest a massage, said Microsoft global vice president and general manager Bryan Biniak.

"That intuition, that empathy, that common-sense experience is going to make a big difference in everybody's lives," he said.

It's a vision of a car no longer as just a vehicle, but a moving, driving interface between drivers and their worlds, real and virtual.

But so far, that vision is a long way from reality.

Research by JD Powers this year showed drivers were increasingly frustrated with current in-car technology, from fiddly navigation systems to half-baked voice control.

And the more challenging that technology is, the more it diverts drivers' attention from what's still their primary business -- driving.

A study by the American Automobile Association in October 2014 showed using hands-free, voice-controlled phone, email and text programs distracted drivers far more than simply talking on the phone or listening to the radio.

As behind-the-wheel technology moves beyond illicit texting into a brave new world of door to door interactivity, the potential for peril may increase. But there's a solution, developers say: more technology.

"These technologies need to be implemented in tandem with our new safety technologies," said Maggie Hendrie, interactive design chair at Los Angeles' Art Center College of Design. "It's a question of what's the right balance."

When it comes to drivers using interactive technology behind the wheel, "the horse is out of the barn," said Cooley.

Drivers are already distracted -- cue the autonomous cars.

Some cars already know when to hit the brakes to avoid a crash, and they can parallel park with mechanical precision. Developers say prototype self-driving cars now on roads are just the first steps toward a future driven by cars that can see each other, communicate, even network, keeping passengers safe and traffic smooth while drivers plug in and tune out.

One part of that future, at least, is already here.

"Let's be honest. You will never stop people trying to fool around with their devices," Peter Virk, head of connected technologies and apps for Jaguar Land Rover, told dpa.

Instead, he said, as drivers and their cars become increasingly connected, carmakers have another mandate: "Let's make it safe to use."

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