Get Ready, Oprah: In-Car Facebook, Web Browsing Will Make Texting Seem Quaint

Last Updated Sep 8, 2010 3:54 PM EDT

General Motor's OnStar is expected to add some new features next year -- including Facebook connectivity. It is the auto industry's latest move to bring more web-rich features to vehicles, but it is becoming clear that it may not know the line between helpful online services and dangerous distractions. Popular talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who has been on a "No Texting While Driving" campaign all year, will have a field day when people start looking at classmate pictures while in traffic.

In all seriousness, the nature of the OnStar/Facebook connection is unclear, according to Craig Trudell and Jeff Green of Bloomberg. The most sensible collaboration would be with Facebook Places, the new location-based check-in service. Users could ask for directions to a particular place, via OnStar, and give others a heads-up when you get there, via Facebook. Gizmodo's Matt Hardigree wonders if it will be about "Liking" locations or sharing driving routes with friends.

However, it's hard to believe that GM would leave the Facebook connection at a location level simply because its competitors are aggressively moving towards in-vehicle web browsing. For instance, I visited Ford's (F) Detroit headquarters earlier in the summer and had hands-on experience with the upcoming MyTouch and Sync 2.0. The web-friendly MyTouch can actually turn the whole car into a Wi-Fi hot spot. Mobile hot spots can be done now with cell phones like Motorola's (MOT) Droid X, but the ability to turn the vehicle into a hub makes using Wi-Fi on the road much more appealing. The Ford system is already connected to Google (GOOG), via Maps, and other online companies, and seems one step away from being a full-blown browser -- all the more reason to believe that GM is pushing for a browser-like experience with the next OnStar iteration.

Ford, GM and other manufacturers will be challenged to find a way to increase web-friendly options while keeping the driver's attention on the road. Their options seem limited:

Voice commands: MyTouch, OnStar and comparable vehicle systems can be voice activated. However, only so many controls can be handled via command, and these limitations will increase quickly as more Internet-like features get introduced.

Use only while idle: Enabling certain functions only when idle could work, but it would, in some ways, defeat the purpose of having the web browsing in the first place. Number one, the passengers wouldn't be able to use it. Number two, why not just use a smartphone?

Restrict browser features to the back seat: Not unlike back seat televisions, manufacturers could enable light web features in the front and have a more complete experience in the back. The challenge would be that the front seat passenger would be as limited as the driver.

Consumers are expecting more connectivity from all their devices, and cars are no exception. In this light, the auto manufacturers will have to tread carefully so they don't give media-hungry consumers too many ways to distract themselves while driving. If car accidents go up due to in-vehicle web browsing, as they supposedly have as text messaging's come into vogue, the auto industry will be the one blamed -- whether it is fair or not.

Photo courtesy of ASurroca // CC 2.0
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