Apple and Google need to put the brakes on car APIs

Along with Ford, the companies need to ease up on push for APIs that integrate consumer electronics into automobiles

If you're an iOS developer, Apple's iCar announcement at the recent WWDC is good news. If you're on Google's side of the code divide, you might be happy to know that OpenXC will let you write Android apps for autos. The car of the (very near) future, as they used to call it, won't fly, but it will be loaded with digital devices that let drivers do almost anything on the road they could do in the office.

Is that really a good idea? I don't think so. More than 3,300 people die every year as a result of distracted driving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But I'm not going to sit here and say you shouldn't text or hold a phone while you're driving. You already know that, as do the auto and consumer electronics industries, which is why they are spending tens of millions of dollars to develop hands-free devices that allow the drivers to keep their eyes on the road while taking care of some sort of digital business.

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It turns out, though, that these hands-free systems are not safe. They distract drivers every bit as much and, in some cases, more than hands-on activities. That's according to a just-released study by University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer on behalf of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Strayer and his colleagues found that drivers' mental workload increased when using advanced, voice-controlled systems, slowing their reaction time, which could make them miss things in front of them that should be obvious, such as pedestrians and stop signs.

Just because you can walk and chew gum at the same time doesn't mean you can simultaneously drive and dictate an email to Siri -- at least not safely.

Open standards in cars
In-car electronics are following a path that many other devices have followed, moving from closed, proprietary system to more open standards, with generally available APIs. That's happening, in part, because consumers aren't particularly satisfied with the devices built into their new cars.

Earlier this year, J.D. Power and Associates released a study on this very point. It showed that satisfaction with in-car systems dropped another 13 points in the study's 1,000-point scale to 681, one of the lowest scores on record. Tellingly, of the 20,704 owners polled, 47 percent had downloaded a navigation app to supplement their in-car system, up from 37 percent in the 2011 study. There's real opportunity here, not all of it related to entertainment or office-related productivity.

Ford and Bug Labs, its co-developer, explain OpenXC like this:

OpenXC is an API to your car -- by installing a small hardware module to read and translate metrics from a car's internal network, the data becomes accessible from most Android applications using the OpenXC library. You can start making vehicle-aware applications that have better interfaces based on context, can minimize distraction while driving, are integrated with other connected services, and can offer you more insight into your car's operation.

It's worth noting that some of the OpenXC projects mentioned have nothing to do with entertainment and might well enhance safety. An intern at Ford, for example, developed a collision avoidance app tuned for nighttime driving in rural areas.

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