Just Let Me Send This E-mail Before The Light Changes
By Michael Schrage

(FORTUNE Magazine) – As a new generation of hands-free phones, wireless modems, palmtops, dashboard GPS maps with voice-activated displays, and OnStar-type services transforms the automobile from its traditional role as personal transport medium to its ultimate destiny as mobile computing platform, one question about the drivers and designers of this ultrafast lane begs to be asked: Have these people lost their minds?

One of these days some harried real estate broker trying to close a deal on her cell phone will crash her SUV into a suburban school bus filled with elementary school kids, and the public outcry over the tragedy will prompt a draconian rethinking of technology's place on the road. You've heard of MADD? Mothers Against Drunk Driving? Within six months there'll be MACC: Mothers Against Cellular Communications. The right accident simply hasn't happened yet. Wait.

The faster, better, and cheaper that mobile communications becomes, the more easily it will intoxicate drivers with its distractions. Information inebriation in the passing lane is every bit as dangerous as a six-pack on an empty stomach.

So whether they're built in or brought to the car, dashboard computing and communications are fast becoming the drunk driving of the new millennium. Though it took decades for legislatures and the courts to put teeth into drunk-driving laws, laws that limit driving while under the influence of digital stimulation will surely come faster. More than two dozen states and 200 municipalities are already weighing such rules.

It's just a matter of time before the auto giants, cellular firms, and mobile computing companies stop running ads celebrating automobiles as "freedom machines" and start running public-service spots urging their customers to "drive responsibly." Much like the alcohol and tobacco companies, wireless computing and communications firms will either self-regulate or be legally compelled to warn of the perils of inappropriate automotive use.

This future DUI-ification of mobile media poses particularly acute challenges for business. A shocking number of firms apparently think nothing of scheduling conference calls during their people's commutes. It's not unheard of for folks behind the wheel to tap into their pagers and Palms as they navigate their stop-and-gos. Java-sipping salesmen have been known to juggle calls on their cells even as they scan the GPS dashboard maps in their rental cars while hurrying to get to their next sales call. Logistically challenged deliverymen in high-tech trucks chat on their phones, respond to pages, and evaluate the job bids displayed on their dashboard monitors as merrily they roll along.

So what happens when there's an accident? What happens when the cell-phone records reveal that the computer-support person who rear-ended a school bus was on a conference call? What happens when an accident analysis finds the truck driver was trying to simultaneously read her business e-mail and the GPS dashboard map before speeding into that busy intersection?

To the extent that those misbehaviors are job-related, the organization may be just as liable as the individual. Consequently, every organization with a fleet--or with employees on wheels--will be coming up with digital-dashboard driving policies sooner rather than later.

Much as Domino's Pizza was barred for safety reasons from guaranteeing delivery within 30 minutes, the courts will not look kindly upon blends of business behavior and mobile media that unambiguously promote automobile accidents.

How long will it be before you have to sign a manufacturer's release when you buy your next cellular phone, promising that you won't use it while driving? What will insurance companies do when they find increasing correlations between accident rates and digital gizmos in the car? Don't be shocked if rental-car companies start to remove some of the high-tech gimcrackery they've put into their high-end cars and make business people swear they won't talk on their phones with only one hand on the wheel. The gutsy rental-car firms will put in active electronic filters to make it impossible to talk on cell phones from the driver's seat of moving cars.

What we have is a classic tension between public policy and private behavior. People want to be able to make phone calls and check e-mail as they drive, but they also don't want to be hit by somebody doing the same thing. Organizations want their people to be more productive, but they also don't want their productivity initiatives to kill anyone. This will be one of those rare battles where breakthrough innovations in technology will lose to the public's priorities and paranoia about safety. We're just an accident away.

MICHAEL SCHRAGE is co-director of the MIT Media Lab's e-markets initiative and author of Serious Play. Reach him at michael_schrage@fortunemail.com.