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Mullins: Here come more driving distractions

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Published:   |   Updated: March 9, 2014 at 04:12 PM

There will soon come a day, I suspect, when we will find ourselves sitting behind the wheel in our driveways, some Saturday afternoon, using a great many words appropriate for only adult audiences.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” we’ll say to our kids. “I can’t play right now. I have to figure out how to update the operating system on the car. I should be done in a few hours.”

Welcome to the world of the “connected car.” Or, in other words, welcome to the day when it takes a call to the Geek Squad to figure out how to install the ‘Gas Pedal’ app.

It’s been building for some time, but suddenly, every car company you can name is rushing headlong to launch wireless features for our cars. Apple just cut a deal with Ferrari, Volvo and Mercedes to put iPhone-like screens in dashboards. All GM cars will soon come with 4G cellular data links.

Like most techie gadgets, the presumption is we will so love these new features that we’ll wonder how we survived without a connected car before. Perhaps so. That happened with cellphones and DVRs and Keurig coffee makers. (Mmmmm, Keurig.)

Here I’ll sound more like a cranky old man than I really am, but I deeply suspect problems lay ahead if these companies try cramming an entire Best Buy into our dashboards. Will we end up having backyard barbecues, debating with our neighbors over which operating system is better for a Nissan or Ford: The Apple iOS or Google Android?

It started on one level many years ago with in-car DVD players so the kids could watch TV during long trips, or just the trip to school. Many a parent blessed the heavens for that innovation. Then came OnStar navigation and hands-free texting. All fine and good, I suppose.

Many car companies claim things like hands-free controls enhance safety. But does anyone not see a safety issue with drivers trying to watch the road, steer and find the Yelp app on their dashboard screen? “Sorry officer,” our future selves may say. “I didn’t see the sign. I’m on the way to work and I was trying to Skype with my boss about a presentation.”

“Really?” the officer will say. “Because I see on your screen there that you’re playing Fruit Ninja. I’ll need your license and insurance, and please step out of the car and download your past 30 minutes of data use to this USB drive.”

God help your family if Mom has a Droid phone and Dad has a Windows phone and the car has an Apple operating system. “Honey, we can’t get an Audi. They don’t work with my data plan.”

Oh, and that’s another thing. The business models are still being worked out, but your car will soon have a data plan. Just who pays for it ... that’s a billion-dollar question.

In other words, car companies that longed all last century for some way to lock customers into a continuing revenue stream now see a path forward. Data plans. I fully expect a dogpile of partnerships between GM, AT&T, Ford, Verizon, Dodge, Sprint, VW, T-Mobile and others for a piece of your monthly check to keep your SUV connected to Fruit Ninja or AAA or the Dancing With The Stars app.

Just last week, I received an invitation to a webinar that read, “Contextual data has the potential to take vehicle safety, driver experience and customer relationships to a new level through enabling the delivery of real-time, situation-aware functions and communications.”

Another report popped in my inbox: “Global Shipments of Streaming Music Enabled Automotive Infotainment Systems to Exceed 66 Million by the End of 2019.” (More than a small part of my journalism work entails translating things like this into English.)

At least three future business plans present themselves to me right away:

1.) A JCPenney in-dash app that links to your store account and pops up 20 percent off coupons when you drive near a store with your size jeans in stock.

2.) TV shows on Hulu exclusively for drivers who download their in-car app.

3.) Spyware and virus protection for your car.

Anyway, we will likely find ourselves more than a little conflicted over the value of smart-car systems. On one hand, Mercedes and other car makers have forward-looking radar systems that spot a risk on the road ahead and can slam on the brakes automatically. That’s a huge step forward. Yet, I think we’ve all learned that if some piece of technology works most of the time, it can also stop working some of the time. My own car has tire-pressure sensors that set off an alarm light on the dashboard almost once a month. Why? Because one of the tires is low. Which one? Who knows? Let’s just stop and check all four. Again.

In the meantime, even car companies seem conflicted about how to convey the selling point of these apps. Take the recent Chevrolet Equinox TV ad that shows a hapless dude driving with his significant other. He taps the hands-free button to hear aloud his text messages (via iPhone Siri). Siri not-so-helpfully reads the message from a friend marveling at how our hero driver got a tattoo last night on his ... he cuts the message short, yet his significant other now detects potentially errant urges lay hidden within her life partner.

This is supposed to make me want to buy that car?

Meanwhile, here’s other retail, restaurant and trend news around town:

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This week, the Evangeline” spa at the Epicurean hotel opened for business, and after reading up on some of the services, I can say this is the place if you’re stressed out and need a spa day — and stressed out and need a drink. Among the services for the ladies: There is a line of liquor-based “body polishes,” including Butter Rum, Bourbon Bubbler, Watermelon-Basil Vodkatini and Whoopie! Cream. For the gentleman, there is a similar alcohol-themed lineup: Fine as Wine men’s facial, Hot Whiskey Scour massage and the Bern’s Bourbon on the Rocks pedicure.

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Details are starting to firm up for fundraisers to benefit the owners and employees affected by the devastating fire at Domani Bistro Lounge and A Modern Line Furniture. The Heights Collective arts group and Florida Avenue Ales now plan one of the largest events for 4 to 11 p.m. March 22 at the Florida Avenue brewing site, 4101 N. Florida Ave. There will be food trucks organized by Tampa Bay Markets, beers and vendors donating proceeds to a charitable fund. There will even be a bake sale and yoga, not to mention local bands like Florida Night Heat, GreyMarket, Matt Hires, Empire Cinema and Genghis Flan. Tickets are $15 each and available on TicketFly. Just look for “The Heights Unites Benefit Bonanza.” If you prefer to just donate, go to this site http://goo.gl/PPbP6c. rmullins@tampatrib.com

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