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As cars become 'iPads on wheels,' threat of distracted driving grows

American drivers are about to become a lot more distracted.

As safety officials fret about drivers taking their eyes off the road to play with smartphones, automakers from Detroit to Japan are rolling out vehicles that are becoming virtual iPads on wheels. Next-generation vehicles, safety experts warn, could make multitasking motorists even more of a hazard on the nation's roads and freeways. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving "a dangerous epidemic."

What began as perks for luxury cars are now becoming standard features of lower-end vehicles, said Carroll Lachnit, an editor at auto information site

Motorists can press steering wheel buttons to buy movie tickets and give voice updates for their Facebook pages. Daimler AG, the German manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz and other vehicles, is working on technology that will enable drivers to read information on the windshield by waving their hand. Ford is offering consumers a car system that converts smartphones into routers, giving passengers Internet access while barreling down the road.

Within five years, more than 90 percent of new cars will come equipped with Internet-connected technology features, said Dominique Bonte, group director of telematics and navigation at ABI Research.

The merging of Detroit and Silicon Valley's mobile technology has the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concerned. It has proposed new dashboard technology guidelines that call for automakers to ensure these new systems are automatically disabled once a vehicle is moving to deter distracted driving.