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Ford, Chrysler, Other Automakers Plug Cars In, But Also Worry

Tech-savvy customers demand to stay just as "connected" in their cars as they are everywhere else. While that trend is unstoppable, there's a strong counter-trend trying to get them to do it safely.

A lot of the auto-related devices and services to be shown off at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show next month in Las Vegas are dedicated to keeping drivers' hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, while allowing them to check messages and scroll through music at the same time.

As a sign of the times, Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally will deliver the opening keynote address at the 2010 CES on Jan. 7. Mulally also kicked off the previous year's CES show, to plug the Ford Sync feature.

Co-developed with Microsoft (MSFT), Sync allows a car's occupants to use voice-control for devices like cell phones and MP3 players, and to hear those devices over the car's speakers. Ford (F) is cultivating a reputation for being ahead of its rivals in accommodating plugged-in consumers - or virtually plugged in, when it comes to wireless devices.

At the same time, there's a lot of concern at Ford and elsewhere about a potential backlash against distracted driving, not to mention concern about potential legal liability.

This week, Chrysler claimed to be the first automaker to ban texting while driving by its employees in company cars. Expect others to follow.

It's debatable how much practical effect the Chrysler texting ban has, but as a PR exercise it's not a bad idea. It also gives Chrysler a chance to plug the fact that Chrysler offers voice-control, too, and that it will soon add a message reader that will convert text to voice.

"A driver's primary responsibility is to be in control of their vehicle; texting while driving clearly interferes with that responsibility," said Steve Bartoli, head of regulatory affairs for Chrysler.

He said Chrysler and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers auto-industry lobbying group support a ban on operating hand-held cell phones while driving. That's a sure sign the industry is worried that on its own, Congress could come up with something even more onerous.

Photo: Ford

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