Car keys -- long perceived as the keys to teenagers' freedom -- may soon be the best way for parents to monitor their every move.
Ford Motor Co. announced today it will offer a new feature, starting next summer on some of its 2010 cars and trucks, that allows parents to set safety limits on teen drivers through a high-tech car key.
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Want to ensure your teen can't drive over 80 mph? Or listen to loud music while driving? Or cruise around town without buckling up? A computer chip in the key allows parents to add those features when the key is in the ignition, and ensures a six-second chime will sound every minute if teens don't fasten their seatbelts. Drivers will also be alerted earlier than usual if they're low on fuel, with the computer chip triggering a warning at 75 miles before the gas tank is empty.
"I think it is a great idea. It is not something that is punitive, it is not set too low to be safe," said Barbara Kurzman, who added that she did buy her children cars when they turned 16. "It just makes sense. I would have wanted my children to have the capacity not to go over 80 miles an hour."
But just how warmly the device will be received by teenagers is up for debate. Today in Los Angeles, 17-year-old Joshua Cruz was among several teens who said he disliked the idea of his parents monitoring his driving habits when they weren't sitting next to him.
"I think it would mean that they don't trust you since they don't think that you are responsible enough to decide what to do," Cruz said. "It is not OK, because you should be able to trust your child."
Ruby Medina, who said she lost a friend in a car crash, also said it would limit her freedom, but conceded that if given a choice, "I would take it 'cause it is a car."
"Teens weren't really excited about this," admitted Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electronic and electrical systems engineering. "But when they found out that parents potentially would give them more access to the vehicle, their interest doubled as well, too."
Buczkowski added, "This is another example of a way we're trying to use technology to improve people's lives and improve driving skills and making the driving experience better and safer for everyone."
Daniel Garcia, 16, said he is OK with the idea. "It would be safe, you wouldn't be able to speed or no tickets -- that would be fine."
While Ford is the first automaker to offer built-in technology intended to reduce teen driving deaths, insurance and technology companies have also teamed up recently in similar efforts.
Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for American teens, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
A high-tech surveillance system offered by Safeco sends parents a text message if their teenagers are driving too fast or break curfew. Other insurance companies, such as AIG Auto Insurance and American Family Insurance Co., also inform parents about their kids' driving habits, whether through GPS systems or cameras attached to the rearview mirror.
"We know what [teens] do. We know that they drive fast, that they exceed the speed limits quite often," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "We know that they follow other vehicles real closely, we know that, often, they don't wear safety belts."
Lund said Ford's development is a good idea, even if it takes some time to see whether it will be effective.
"It's a way for parents to sort of extend themselves into the car when they can't be there," added Lund. "Sort of like electronic parenting as their teens are learning to drive."
Ford will debut the technology with its upcoming Ford Focus, then expand the technology to other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models.