Ford SYNCTechnology is a great thing. It has made our lives easier, and has solved many problems. But it also creates problems. Consider two recent articles addressing technological advances in the dashboards of new cars. Quentin Hardy discusses “The Next Boom in Mobile Devices is the Car” in an article of that name in The New York Times blog Bits (“Business, Innovation, Technology, Society”). On the other hand, Myron Levin wrote an article for FairWarning asking if automakers are tempting drivers with tantalizing gadgets while at the same time they are assailing distracted driving.

Hardy writes: “Cars, one of the great mobile devices to begin with, are about to get connected to the Internet like never before. It will change not just how we drive, but the economics of the car business.” He goes on to quote Glenn Lurie, the president of AT&T’s Emerging Devices business:

‘Five percent of cars are connected today,’ said Glenn Lurie, president of AT&T’s Emerging Devices business. He was speaking of new vehicles, not all cars on the road. ‘Three to five years from now, 100 percent will be connected. You’ll see diagnostics, calls when the airbag goes off, real-time traffic reports, entertainment in the back seat.’

Lurie was speaking at CTIA, a San Diego gathering for the wireless industry, where Cadillac displayed an infotainment platform last Tuesday that will be in three 2012 luxury models. The platform, called Cue, has an 8-inch touch-screen that displays maps, climate controls, weather, and text messaging, in addition to auto safety monitoring features. It allows the driver to plug in a smartphone in order to have messages read out loud. Cadillac’s website (where you can see a video about this system) says Cue allows the driver to “connect with the latest apps.”

Hardy writes that Ford has shown a similar in-car entertainment system, in addition to monitoring and information systems for its electric cars to help drivers find a nearby charging station. He calls it an “explosion of business models that will go well with connected cars.” He quotes Lurie as saying the effect on the car business will be “a watershed.”

And Lurie thinks the next step might be smaller companies working on repurposing existing devices, like the iPod, for vehicles: “What kind of cradle does the device fit into in the home, or the office or the car?” The tablet, Hardy writes, “may spend part of its day as a picture frame on an office desk, he said, and later be hooked into the screens of an online multiplayer game.”

Now let’s consider Myron Levin’s article in FairWarning. Levin writes that Ford and BMW are among those automakers who have launched campaigns to alert teens to the hazards of distracted driving — Ford, with clinics at U.S. high schools as part of its “Driving Skills for Life” program; and BMW with its series of “Don’t Text and Drive” ads.

As Levin reports,

Through efforts like these, automakers are positioning themselves as leaders in the fight against distracted driving, which federal authorities estimate caused 5,474 deaths in 2009, including 995 from using cellphones.

But even as they tell drivers to act responsibly and pay attention to the road, the companies are seeking to pump up sales by packing their new models with cutting-edge infotainment systems that encourage multi-tasking behind the wheel.

Levin cites Ford’s SYNC system which lets drivers use voice commands and touch-screens to make and receive calls, listen to text messages, and choose from a menu of replies. He says BMW’s ConnectedDrive provides calling, email and text read-backs, and displays messages on its screen. He writes that auto executives are adding high-tech features to boost sales, especially to younger people.

He quotes David Mondragon, president of Ford Canada, who told the Canadian Marketing Association: “The biggest turnoff to a twentysomething consumer is to put their life on hold when they sit in a car. And what does it mean to put their life on hold? To get disconnected when they get in the car, to have a system that will not allow you to sit there and e-mail, read your BlackBerry, talk on the phone.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there are three types of distractions for drivers: visual, manual, and cognitive. And that even when a driver is looking at the road while talking on the phone, he or she can fail to respond to visual cues because his or her mind is on the phone conversation.

Levin reports that “The evidence includes a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that found that drivers are four times more likely to crash when they are talking on the phone, whether using a hand-held or hands-free device.” He writes:

Even if on-board systems are better than portable devices, there is a question of whether they will become an ever-present temptation and cause drivers to ‘spend more time distracted in some way,’ said Adrian Lund, president of the insurance institute. ‘The honest answer is, we don’t know. This is an experiment we’re all in.’

Levin also writes:

Critics say that in highlighting distracted driving, automakers are hoping to inoculate themselves against tough scrutiny of their built-in systems. ‘The best defense is a good offense,’ said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. ‘One has to watch what auto companies do, versus what they say. While they say distracted driving is unsafe, they are making hundreds of millions of dollars by selling distracted driving technology.’

Image by Ford, used under Fair Use: Reporting.