Looking down the road

Latest communication technology could leave some drivers scrambling

Tim Nixon, executive director of infotainment and OnStar engineering for General Motors, gave a presentation at the MIT Faculty Club. Tim Nixon, executive director of infotainment and OnStar engineering for General Motors, gave a presentation at the MIT Faculty Club. (Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 21, 2011

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Cars are getting so smart, it’s not clear whether consumers will be able to keep up.

Telematics — the science of integrating computers and communications gear into cars — was the subject of an MIT symposium yesterday that explored such gee-whiz technologies for automobiles as in-car computers that warn of traffic jams or automatically call the police after an accident.

“We need to innovate, we need to move forward,’’ said Bryan Reimer, a research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the event. “But we need to figure out how not to leave the consumer in the past.’’ Reimer was among a group of speakers that included telematics executives from Ford Motor Co., BMW AG, General Mo tors Corp., and Hyundai Motor America.

Products like GM’s OnStar remote control notification and security system have shown the power and the popularity of telematic systems, and around the world, major carmakers are embracing the technology or enhancing their existing services, speakers said.

For instance, Hyundai Motor America is about to launch Blue Link, an OnStar-like service that can provide dozens of services to drivers, from turn-by-turn navigation to a system that can remotely immobilize the car if it’s stolen. Barry Ratzlaff, director of service operations for North America for Hyundai Motor America, said that like other systems, including Ford’s Sync, Blue Link will allow users to request information by voice, letting the driver keep his hands on the wheel. But computerized speech recognition sometimes fails, so the Blue Link service will include remote communication with human beings who will respond whenever the computer can’t understand a spoken request. Blue Link will be offered this summer on two Hyundai models, and will later be added to the company’s entire product line.

GM’s venerable OnStar system, like Blue Link, uses a cellphone built into the car. But Tim Nixon, executive director for OnStar engineering at General Motors, talked about an enhanced version called MyLink, which connects to the driver’s smartphone. Users will be able to access entertainment apps like the Pandora music service by voice.

“Customers are going to use their smartphones in their cars,’’ said Nixon. “We have to make these devices more safe.’’ MyLink will first appear on new Chevrolet Volt and Equinox models this summer.

But Joseph Coughlin, director of MIT’s AgeLab, warned that many consumers aren’t ready for the new technology. Coughlin said that the most advanced telematic systems are often found in luxury cars popular with older consumers — the very people who often have trouble using such systems. “We really have a serious paradox, where the newest technology is going to the oldest users,’’ said Coughlin, who researches the ways older consumers use digital devices.

In addition, car retailers rarely teach consumers about how to use the new gadgets properly, according to Coughlin, who said automakers ought to offer training to car buyers. “Dealerships have not changed in 20, 30 years,’’ he said. “Here’s the seat, here’s the stereo, here are the keys, good luck.’’

MIT’s Reimer worried that today’s telematic systems give drivers too many information and entertainment choices, leading to possibly deadly distraction. “I have yet to see anyone in the industry putting the effort into this that it requires,’’ he said.

BMW has tried to address the problem by using pushbuttons, knobs, and speech recognition to control its ConnectedDrive telematic system. “We’re still not sure that a touchscreen in our cars makes sense,’’ said Tom Baloga, BMW’s vice president of US engineering.

Connecting cars to the Internet also raises security issues. Doug VanDagens, Ford’s director of connected service solutions, said the company is aware of the threat posed by hackers and has built strong defenses into the Sync system. “We’ve probably spent more money on security that any other place,’’ he said.

But it’s just a matter of time before attackers find ways to invade our cars’ digital systems, Reimer said. “If they want to get in,’’ he said, “they will.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at