Ford is making it easier to access computer devices in its cars, enabling users of iPad, Kindle, Nook and other tablets to control their devices with their voices instead of their hands.
The move is bound to set atwitter safety advocates, who argue there are already too many distractions behind the wheel. Just last month the issue again took front stage after the death of 18-year-old Taylor Sauer, who crashed her car into a tanker truck while texting.
Ford said the upgrade of its SYNC system is out of concern for driver safety.
"Drivers are bringing these devices into the car already," said Alan Hall, a spokesman for Ford. "We're allowing them to access the content in a safer way."
Ford began shipping upgrades to its SYNC voice-activated entertainment system on Monday, with the tablet compatibility built in. The automaker has taken a big hit to its quality reputation because of SYNC, which consumers have complained is slow, unreliable and hard to use.
SYNC has already been the focus of debate over what should be allowed behind the wheel. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has made distracted driving a top priority, and last month said he wants automakers to block any devices that allow texting, browsing, tweeting or dialing from their vehicles.
Jake Fisher, senior automotive editor for Consumer Reports, said there is some logic behind Ford's desire to broaden the types of devices drivers can use in the car. The SYNC system is safer than holding the device and trying to use it while driving, he said.
"While abstinence may be the safest choice, Ford realizes that drivers aren’t ready for it and has decided to give its customers condoms," Fisher said.
Ford said the SYNC upgrade allows more devices to work with voice activation or through controls on the steering wheel, although most still won't charge. Devices including the iPad, Kindle Fire, HP Touchpad, Nook Color and Sony Tablet S need more electricity than Ford's outlets provide. SYNC will allow drivers to play audio files, but they won't be able to read books on the SYNC screen.
"Driving is the top priority when behind the wheel," said Jeff Ostrowski, Ford's supervisor of SYNC software development. “Providing voice-controlled access to a user's tablet is another way we help ensure that priority doesn't shift just because there's a new device being brought into the car."
Ford hopes the iPad 3, set for release tomorrow, will be compatible with the upgrade, Ostrowski said. Ford engineers will have to order iPad 3s like everyone else, he said.