Driven to distraction

National | Ford tests cell phone safety, AOL and Time Warner make their marriage official, and other technology news

Issue: "China: Caesar’s seminary," Jan. 27, 2001

Driving under the influence of technology
Ever worry that some guy talking on a cell phone is going to plow into your shiny new car? Ford Motor Co. is spending $10 million on a driving simulator to study how drivers interact with electronic gadgets. Ford's two-year program involves a simulator called VIRTTEX (VIRtual Test Track Experiment). A specially rigged Taurus will be bolted inside the machine, with participants driving in a computer-controlled environment. The program will test them in a range of traffic situations while operating cellular phones, navigation systems, and other new-fangled equipment. The program comes as a whole industry of telematics is springing up, consisting of companies building high-tech devices that users can operate by voice command. You say "phone home" to your dashboard and it starts dialing. Some researchers raise safety concerns about all this. An experiment conducted at the University of Iowa showed that when e-mail was read to drivers, they took 30 percent longer to respond to brake lights from a vehicle in front of them. "What we need to understand is what level of distraction is acceptable," said Helen Petrauskas, Ford vice president for safety. "We're used to listening to the radio or talking to a passenger, but how does new technology compare?" According to federal statistics, driver distractions of various sorts were a factor in 10 percent of 1999's fatal accidents. Since the auto industry wants to place Internet access and other technologies in cars, the issue is a major concern. Cell phones are especially controversial. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 27 states considered regulating them last year. Proposals ranged from requiring hands-free devices to outright bans. Arranged marriage
So the marriage is official. AOL Time Warner is here-controlling a portfolio ranging from the Netscape web browser to the classic MGM movie library. Now what? The deal was announced at just the right time: just before the stock market roller coaster approached the top and prepared to shoot downward. As the dealmakers waited for approval, the combined company's value shrank from $165 billion to $106 billion, and AOL Time Warner faces a strange new world and cynicism about the mix of old and new media. The goal of the merger is digital convergence-finding new ways to send content over high-speed broadband lines-but exactly what we'll see isn't clear. Part of the combination will be a big marketing machine, since the company's properties (magazines, cable, Internet) have huge subscriber lists to exploit. One lesson from this is that Internet content is just another form of media. America Online's flagship service is more like a TV network than a conventional high-tech entity. One big part of that system is coming under scrutiny: instant messaging. Millions send short text messages across the Net, usually on AOL's system. Since AOL has the largest network, it maintains what many see as an unbreakable monopoly, a la Microsoft and Windows. The FCC delayed a requirement that AOL open its instant message system to competitors, but the agency did require that at least one other company have access before AOL launches high-speed services like video streaming. Many critics want a message system that lets people talk regardless of carrier, like long distance. Consumers' big brother
Now that Ralph Nader isn't running for president, he can go back to his old tricks. At a National Press Club speech this month he promoted his proposal for a World Consumer Protection Organization, a global entity empowered to save us from scam artists, online spammers, and big evil corporations. The key target is cyberspace. Think of it as a giant regulatory body defining global standards on consumer trade: a WTO for the common man. Nader colleague James Love proposed the WCPO in a presentation to a European Community forum last year. "For electronic commerce, I expect the government to perform some functions in the areas of antitrust, consumer protection, and intellectual property," he told a Rome audience. The WCPO would perform the current regulatory duties of our federal government, except on a global scale. The result would put e-commerce under a big umbrella. The WCPO idea sports some admirable goals, such as protecting the free speech and privacy of ordinary people and opening a forum to "border disputes" between nations. Yet the proposal also calls for ways to "protect the Internet from predatory and monopolistic practices by giant software, computer, and telecommunications companies." Translation: Globocop would prevent the next Microsoft from ever happening. We already have all sorts of bodies, from the WTO to the WHO, that try to govern some segment of the world, and since the Internet smudges international boundaries, someone will always want global regulation. But if national governments have trouble regulating cyberspace, how will bureaucrats in Geneva pull it off?

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