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LA Auto Show 2013: Are 'smart' cars driving us to distraction?

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The doors finally swing open to the public Friday at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Founded back in 1907, the annual event now showcases high tech vehicles that have become rolling communication and entertainment centers.  The latest models also show off features designed to ensure safer driving. 

The Auto Show attracts entrepreneurs like Matt Ginsberg, CEO of a Eugene, Oregon-based company called GreenDriver.  He has developed a smartphone app that runs in eight western U.S. cities, drawing on real-time data from traffic lights .

"When you pull up to a red light and stop, it tells you orally how long the light's going to be red," Ginsberg said.   "Five seconds before the light changes, it sounds a bell, tells you to refocus on driving."

That’s just the app.  The technology he wants to market to automakers goes even further. If a driver is running a red light inadvertently, the technology could honk the car's horn or  apply the brakes. Ginsberg says his device will help cut down on the number of red light intersection accidents.

 "In today’s world, for the cars not to know what the traffic lights are doing is crazy," Ginsberg says. 

Is a 'smarter' car necessarily a 'safer' car?

Just about everywhere at the L.A. Auto Show, automakers declare just how much their vehicles "know". Scott Keough, President of Audi North America, introduced the new A-3, saying the sedan is the first to provide 4G LTE in the vehicle itself. 

"Picture navigation, read-out-loud twitter alerts, flight updates, enhanced parking finder, and access to more than 7000 internet radio stations," Keough said, listing just a few of the added features.

In Acura's exhibit space, an interactive kiosk shows how the company's "blind spot information system" works.  

"If you signal that you want to change lanes, and the system still detects a vehicle in your blind spot, it warns you not to change lanes," a narrator says. 

It makes sense that a “smarter car” could be a “safer car”,  But what about giving your full attention to actually driving the car?  Bruce Mehler, Research Scientist at the Massachusetts' Institute of Technology's AgeLab and the New England University Transportation system, says there's a danger that drivers could become too reliant on technology. 

"That is a very important thing for drivers to understand and an important thing for manufacturers to communicate to them is exactly for any given system:  what it does and what it doesn’t do," Mehler says.  

He studies the impact of various technologies on people behind the wheel and shares his research with automakers, including Toyota's Collaborative Safety Research Center.  On the first day of the Connected Car Expo, which preceded the L.A. Auto Show, he participated in a panel discussion on distracted driving.    

RELATED: Connected Car Expo unveils apps that bark, predict, navigate

Mehler and I checked out a few new cars on the Auto Show floor, looking closely at where they placed their buttons and screens.  We got into  a 2014 Range Rover with Andrew Polsinelli, the General Manager of Product Planning for Land Rover North America, who demonstrated the vehicle’s five exterior cameras and its voice-command navigation system.

"It’s still not perfect at recognizing," he said after taking us through a search for a Wilshire Boulevard address in Santa Monica. "So when I said Santa Monica, there’s lots of Santa-somethings in California."

MIT’s Bruce Mehler was impressed that the driver could look at the navigation system's display through the middle of the steering wheel, a quick and easy glance down from the road ahead, but he, too noted that voice-command technology is still evolving. 

"It may be a good example of where one needs to wait a little bit for the technology to mature a little bit more," Mehler said.  

Mehler says this is the kind of situation automakers must manage  as they look for ways to prevent drivers from picking up their smart phones while they're on the road.  Voice command may seem like a perfect solution, but Mehler says he was surprised to find in a recent AgeLab study that when using voice command to perform some tasks, drivers actually take their eyes off the road  for longer moments than expected.

Andrew Polsinelli of Land Rover says his company could offer 100 tech features to consumers, only to learn that at most, they utilize only ten or fifteen.

"So the point of diminishing returns is how many features do you put in the car that overcomplicate it when what you really want are basic functionality that works really, really well that you can use every single day," said Polsinelli.

No matter how many features light up in a new car, Polsinelli and Mehler agree that drivers should spend more time learning to use them before they get on the road.   

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