Is in-car Internet safe?

While cars equipped with Internet could help create a safer driving experience, critics say there are hazards to going online in an automobile. One hazard is distracted driving, defined as any activity that takes a driver's focus off the road and could lead to an increased risk of a crash. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation for 2009 tally 5,474 people killed and roughly 448,000 injured in motor vehicle crashes that involved distracted driving [source: U.S. Department of Transportation]. Critics fear that drivers going online create hazards comparable or greater to those of cell phones and other common distractions.

However, drivers already can and do use smartphones in their cars. ''The automakers want to make [using online functions while driving] a safer experience,'' says Cunningham. ''They don't want somebody driving their car, picking up their smartphone, and e-mailing, texting, or using Facebook.'' Many systems allow voice commands that respond to the driver's requests, as well as text-to-speech functions that can read e-mails, Twitter updates, and other prose through the vehicle's speakers. Some systems even prohibit complex features, like programming radio stations, from operation while the vehicle is in motion. Still, there are no laws regulating these systems just yet.

Driver distraction isn't the only issue. Connected cars could also be vulnerable to viruses, malware, and hackers, just like conventional computers. In 2010, a former Texas auto dealership employee disabled and sabotaged more than 100 cars connected to a Web-based system intended to remind drivers of overdue payments [source: Poulsen]. And in 2011, researchers from the University of California San Diego and University of Washington revealed that they had exploited security loopholes in an unnamed connected car and took control of its engine [source: Markoff].

While these episodes raise many security concerns, manufacturers say there are safeguards that can protect automobiles, such as separating the infotainment systems from the systems that control the vehicle's core functions. (According to Translogic, cars with built-in data connections have different vulnerabilities than cars that tether to a smartphone connection [source: Lavrinc].

The quality assurance process a car undergoes before reaching consumers is another safeguard. Cunningham says that new cars are subjected to hundreds of tests in hopes of anticipating and addressing problems before the vehicle goes to the marketplace. ''There are a lot more people involved in quality assurance on a car than in software development,'' Cunningham says.