DETROIT -- Transportation experts say automakers, in their rush to sell vehicles equipped with the latest in technology and Internet links, have failed to study the gadgetry's effects on highway safety.
Automakers, parts companies and electronics firms have been racing to add so-called "telematics" services, built on speech-driven computer programs. The systems are springing from years of research that has showed driver distraction is a major cause of road accidents.
Because the new systems free the driver's hands, they have been advertised as a safety improvement.
Nevertheless, several research papers presented at Convergence 2000, a convention for the auto electronics industry that is underway here, suggest that voice-controlled systems pose serious safety concerns.
"At this point, safety and human factors efforts lag far behind electronics development," wrote Paul Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, in a paper being presented Thursday. He predicted a "significant" number of highway deaths were caused by distraction due to technology.
There are several hundred thousand vehicles in the United States equipped with telematics devices, most of them new General Motors Corp. vehicles with OnStar service. GM also is rolling out a voice-activated OnStar service that lets users send and receive phone calls, e-mail and some limited Internet information.
Other automakers and suppliers are developing such services as well, including the two largest parts makers, Delphi Automotive Systems and Visteon Corp. Delphi soon will start building an Internet-capable docking port for cell phones and Palm handheld devices. All use voice commands.
Terrence Connolly, director of GM's Safety Center, told a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration panel in July that the automaker believed voice-controlled devices were the best answer to safety concerns about in-car computers and cell phones.
Automakers see telematics as a lucrative source of new income. Saul Rubin, an auto industry analyst with UBS Warburg, estimates that worldwide revenue from telematics will grow from $4.2 billion this year to $47.2 billion in 2010.
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