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Debate over hands-free car technology

March 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
New technology is helping drivers stay connected through texts, e-mails and even Facebook, but not everyone loves the idea.

Accounting consultant Tom Osler is in and out of his car all day visiting clients. He relies heavily on the car's hands-free options.

"Hands-free technology is essential to my business and my safety," Osler said. "It helps me communicate with my clients."

And it's not just hands-free radio controls anymore. Technology inside cars has gone from answering a phone call or setting the temperature to verbally imputing a destination in a navigation system and summoning music the driver may want to hear.

Nearly every auto company now offers some kind of hands-free options, and new technology is on the horizon.

"We're looking at potentially having voice-to-text e-mailing that would read your e-mails to you and take dictation of your voice when you do a response to that e-mail," said Karl Brauer of car specialist website Edmunds.com.

In fact, General Motors recently launched a pilot test that uses an OnStar application to let drivers send and receive texts and update their status on Facebook while driving.

Think this is something only the younger crowd is interested in? Think again.

"It's more demanded by younger groups, but even older people would like to be able to make safe, hands-free calls, get information updated, updates from friends and loved ones while they drive without having to manually type things or interact manually with some other device," Brauer said.

But not everyone's a fan of this kind of freedom, including the National Transportation Safety Board.

"When you're on the road, your primary responsibility is to make sure you get to your destination safely," said Debbie Hersman of the NTSB. "It's not to conduct business, not to socialize. It's to protect the people in your vehicle and all of those around you."

The NTSB acknowledges hands-free technology is helpful, but they still say it can be a distraction.

"What's still debatable is the kinds of things that might be a cognitive distraction, not necessarily distracting your hands, but distracting your mind and attention from the road," Hersman said.

Talking on the phone could be enough to divert attention when it's needed most.

Some of the new technology is designed to cut down on that distraction, including apps with automatic texting functions that tell others why it is the driver isn't responding.

The NTSB still argues the easiest way to handle that is to simply turn off the phone.