Earlier this week, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mercedes-Benz USA unveiled “mbrace2,” an in-dashboard service that enables the use of Facebook, Yelp, and Google behind the wheel. The service will likely be available in all 2013 models.
Mbrace2 will be the latest entry in a growing list of built-in communications interfaces currently offered by major automakers. Ford, GM, BMW, and Kia all feature systems that allow drivers to “read” and “write” emails or text messages using voice commands, which distracted driving prevention group Focus Driven says doesn’t cut it as a safe alternative to hand-held devices. (Mercedes’ new system is operated by knob, not by voice.)
The move was almost inevitable, Facebook’s VP of Partnerships and Platform Marketing Dan Rose told Reuters:
“Now that cars have screens that are intelligent, you would expect that more and more car manufacturers will want to make those screens capable of allowing people to connect with their friends and take advantage of the social context that comes along with that,” Rose said in an interview.
“One of the core things that people do on their screens in the car is GPS navigation and the ability to see which of your friends are nearby is something we think will be really interesting for people.”
So where is the line between “really interesting” and “dangerous distraction”? After all, the announcement comes at a time when the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended a ban on the use of all portable electronic devices, GPS devices excepted, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Additionally, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has made the anti-distracted driving campaign something of a cornerstone issue for his department. So how will Mercedes’ new feature fare in the face of multiple public awareness campaigns and regulatory efforts aimed at combating distracted driving?
To date, U.S. DOT has made no judgments regarding these in-dash communications systems. But in a move that shows at least some recognition of the system’s potential for distraction, Mercedes has programmed mbrace2 to disable certain functions while the car is in gear, like web browsing and Facebook’s News Feed and Wall features. However, drivers can still scroll through phone numbers and addresses of their friends, check event information, and update their statuses while the car is in motion. Mercifully, Mercedes’ version of Facebook will not support third-party apps like Farmville.
In the end, though, mbrace2’s limitations may end up curbing its potential to distract. In a hands-on review of the system, PCWorld pointed out that, besides the stripped-down functionality of the apps, “Websites also look less-than-stellar on the Mbrace2’s interface, so you may just want to use your phone instead — after all, you’re already parked.”