Mirror, signal… surf the internet

A NEW generation of computerised dashboard devices that will bring internet access to the driver's seat are about to be unveiled in a move that will revolutionise motoring.

The Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets will allow drivers to compose voice-activated e-mails on the move, call up restaurant reviews as they reach their destination and use 3D maps to navigate while their passengers watch movies.

But motoring organisations have warned the so-called "infotainment" systems will distract drivers and increase the risk of accidents. Up to now, car manufacturers have limited production models to sat-nav systems, and dashboard video only when the engine is switched off.

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The devices, which are being developed by technology companies such as Intel and Google in conjunction with car manufacturers, will go on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week.

Cars with screens capable of showing high-definition videos on the move, 3D maps and web pages will be on sale in the US later this year before being installed in models available in the European market.

Technology companies see a huge profit in developing in-car entertainment and striking deals with car manufacturers that could result in the systems becoming standard in most vehicles.

They are pressing ahead with the technology, despite research demonstrating that in-car gadgets can be dangerous. Drivers using mobile phones (whether handheld or not) are four times more likely to have an accident. In the last three years, more than 50,000 drivers in Scotland have been caught using mobile phones.

The manufacturers have included some safeguards that prevent drivers from watching video and using some functions while the vehicle is moving.

Duncan Vernon, from the road safety team at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, acknowledged that sat-nav systems could help motorists, but warned that too much gadgetry was dangerous.

Vernon said: "All drivers have to navigate when they are behind the wheel, and technology such as sat-navs can help drivers do this when used appropriately.

"But there is a serious potential for distraction, and related crashes, resulting from visual display entertainment systems unrelated to and unnecessary for driving. Most of us would be shocked if we saw a driver reading an encyclopaedia or texting behind the wheel, and rightly so. When behind the wheel, a driver's primary task is to drive."

Edmund King, AA president, said: "

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We must accept that technology is evolving and will not go away.

But in general terms we think that the internet should be reserved for the cyber-highway rather than cause distractions for drivers on the real highway."

Neil Greig, director of policy and research for the Institute of Advanced Motoring, said: "The impact of these devices on driving standards has not been sufficiently examined. Therefore it must be a basic requirement that the new interactive technology only works when cars are stationary."

Concerns have also been voiced in the US, where drivers will be the first to be offered the chance to buy the devices.

Nicholas Ashford, professor of technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst. Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety – for both drivers and pedestrians."

One system developed by Audi allows motorists to obtain information as they drive. On the way to Edinburgh, for example, the driver could scribble the word "castle" on a touch-pad and get a Wikipedia entry on the attraction, reviews of nearby restaurants and animations of the routes to get there.

A notice that pops up when the Audi system is turned on reads: "Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely."

Ford's new MyFord system lets the driver adjust temperature settings or call a friend while the car is in motion. But its built-in web browser works only when the car is parked.

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A complex new dashboard console from Ford, to be launched on Thursday, will see three colour screens introduced to the dashboard.

A 4in colour screen to the left of the speedometer displays information about the car, such as the fuel level. A companion screen on the right shows the name of a mobile phone caller or the title of the song being played.

On top of the central console is an 8in touch-screen, displaying control panels. When the car is stationary it will show web pages. The system has Wi-Fi capability, two USB ports and a connection to plug in a keyboard.

The technology and car companies claim safety remains a priority.

"We are trying to make that driving experience one that is very engaging," said Jim Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford.

"We also want to make sure it's safer."

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