by Doron Levin, contributor
FORTUNE -- Think that texting while driving is a distraction? An enhanced navigation system in the new Audi A6, drawing on technology from Google (GOOG), offers search and display functions that could take driver distraction to a whole new level. But Audi is also including safety features that make the car less likely to crash.
The standard map format on Audi's navigation has been replaced by Google Earth's satellite-photo images. And since the car serves as its own WiFi hotspot (available through a $30-a-month contract with T-Mobile), Google can search for restaurants or other landmarks, then provide guidance via the car's navigation.
Want to know if the motel has a pool for the kids? Just search the name of the motel. You can also find out how it looks and what features if offers, and if you like what you see then tell the navigation system to guide you there. An automated message does warn the driver of the dangers of integrating Google technology into a navigation system – and the increased chance of drawing a attention away from the task of driving.
But Audi has also developed enhanced high-tech safety features that make the A6 more difficult to crash, as well as safer in the event of an accident. Radar and cameras can detect from the front, side and rear of the A6 whether the car is in danger of a collision, and flash a warning on the dash. "A tap on the shoulder," an Audi spokesman calls it.
Milliseconds before a collision the seat belts tense and windows close, as does the sunroof. If a collision is imminent from the rear, the car's software calculates whether to deploy the brakes in order to mitigate a second collision, if sensors show another car is ahead. The airbags still don't deploy unless there's an actual crash.
"These two trends – advanced driver information and active safety – are developing in tandem," said Mark Dahncke, an Audi spokesman. "When you carry your iPhone in the car you have this functionality already. We integrate the features into the car to make them as safe and useful as possible."
"Officer, the computer did it!"
Advanced information technology is creating more and more automotive applications, turning cars into rolling computers. Eventually drivers may need to assume less responsibility for actual operation of their vehicles. Last year Google demonstrated a driver-less car that navigated 1,000 miles of California roads, more or less free of incidents. And earlier this month, legislators in Nevada passed a bill authorizing the state's Transportation Department to draw up rules and standards for driver-less cars on state roads.
Volvo has introduced a system called "City Safety" that reduces the chance of low-speed crashes in which the driver fails to brake in time, usually causing a rear-end collision. A laser sensor mounted on the rear-view mirror constantly measures that relative speed with the vehicle ahead, ordering the brakes to apply pressure in the event that driver fails to do so.
Might cars one day be uncrashable? "It will happen at some point," said Dahncke. "For now, we can warn the driver of any obstacle in the way and minimize the effects of a crash to some degree." Audi's cutting-edge safety and IT features come in a vehicle that starts at about $50,000 for the 3-liter turbo engine, with $4,400 extra for a premium package that includes Google Earth and six months of 3G wireless service.
The features offered on Audi's A6 will become available on middle-of-the-road models in a few years. Who knows how long before we will be able to set the destination on our car and let Google do the rest?
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