Experts Debate Merits, Dangers Of Wi-Fi In Cars
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Neal Conan is away. If you tuned in to hear our conversation on the economy and how things have changed, we've moved that show to tomorrow in this same hour. If you happened to stop by or at least hear about last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas or at this week's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, you might have noticed one recurring theme: The Internet is everywhere. It's in TVs, video games, phones, eReaders and airplanes. But the latest media companies may be carmakers. Take Ford. On some 2012 models, you'll have Wi-Fi on your dashboard, you can check movie times, get maps and send tweets using voice commands or touch screens.
But with phone calls and texting already distracting drivers, do we really need one more complication in our cars? In a minute, we'll talk with a few experts. Having access to the Internet everywhere you go may not be as good as you think. So do you want the Internet everywhere? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from his home in Palo Alto, California, is Larry Magid. He is the CBS News technology analyst. He's also a blogger for cnet.com and co-director of connectsafely.org. Larry Magid, welcome to the program.
Mr. LARRY MAGID (Technology Analyst, CBS News): Nice to be here.
ROBERTS: So first, tell us how the Consumer Electronics Show went. Were there some cool gadgets?
Mr. MAGID: Well, yeah, there's always cool gadgets. The big theme, of course, was TV and 3-D TV. There was also Internet TV, which I'm sure we'll get to later, but 3-D was everywhere. There's no question that the industry is excited about it. The success of "Avatar" is certainly a big stimulus for interest in 3-D, but whether people want to don glasses to watch TV at home in 3-D is an interesting question. And the other interesting question are people like myself, who bought a high-definition TV within the last couple of years, are we going to go out and buy another one anytime soon just because 3-D is available?
ROBERTS: Also, as perennially happens, there's a lot of talk about convergence. You know, your TV will have Internet access, and your computer will have whatever, you know, that all of these different devices will have mixed capability.
Mr. MAGID: Yes, absolutely, and that was another big theme. I've been testing out the Roku now for over a year, which is a device that allows me to watch Netflix streaming video or watch movies on demand for Amazon on my television set, and it was kind of a niche product, but I think it's going mainstream.
D-Link, which is a router company, is doing something with Boxee. Boxee does similar kinds of things, bringing that to the television. We also saw TV companies building Internet accessibility right there into the television. Of course, TiVo and some of the Blu-Ray players also have Internet access. And what this means is that instead of being - relying on broadcast or cable or satellite for your TV programs, you can just stream them right there on the Internet, watch it on your big-screen in high-definition TV. So I think this is going to be very disruptive of the entire broadcast, satellite and cable model going forward.
ROBERTS: Now, one of the keynotes was delivered by the CEO of Ford, Al Mulally. What was Ford doing at CES?
Mr. MAGID: Well, Ford is very much of a technology company. The THINK technology that they've done with Microsoft have been in Fords for a while now, and they're expanding it and adding more features. They're adding a couple of more displays right on the dashboard that will give you both car information as well as information about entertainment and communications.
They're adding Wi-Fi capability. For example, if you had a cellular modem with a USB card from Sprint or Verizon or wherever, you'd be able to plug that right into the car audio or car communication system. Or if you've got Internet on your iPhone, you can connect that through your iPhone to your audio station.
So again, just like I talked a minute ago about the disruption of television broadcast, it could also have an impact on radio because instead of having to only listen to stations like this that have transmitters and FCC licenses, you could be listening to any of thousands of Internet radio stations if you're driving down the highway. So I think that's going to have a big impact on the radio industry.
ROBERTS: Yeah, don't let the word of that get out, will you, Larry?
Mr. MAGID: I try to keep it as quiet as I can.
ROBERTS: So if - how are drivers potentially accessing all of this capability? Is it pressing buttons while you're driving?
Mr. MAGID: Well, the good news is - and I think Ford has put a lot of thought into the ergonomics of the physical connection in terms of having a switch right there on the steering wheel, having voice commands and activation and having the displays in as good a place as you can possibly put a display without disrupting the driver's ability to look at the road.
But here's the problem, and I think about this when California passed a law recently that says you can only use your phone if it's hands-free. I have two hands, but I only have one brain, and even if they did a perfect job, and it's far from perfect - even if they did a perfect job on the hand-eye issue, what about the brain issue? What about the fact that you're immersed in a conversation? What about the fact that you're thinking about which of 3,000 radio stations you want to listen to, or you're messing with your GPS, or you're configuring your video so the kids in the backseat can see it? These are all things that the driver has to think about in addition to navigating a 3,000 pound car down a highway. So I do worry about the safety implications.
ROBERTS: And if you are not actually physically reaching for buttons, it's still distracting to your brain, as you say, but some of these are supposed to be voice command. Is voice recognition technology up to that task?
Mr. MAGID: Voice recognition technology has gotten a lot better in the last couple of years. In fact, unrelated to this conversation, I'm testing the Google Nexus One phone, and I'm amazed at how well it can let me dictate even email messages. So I think certainly for discrete commands, such as call home or turn on KQED or whatever the San Francisco NPR station or whatever it is, those kinds of discrete commands, I think voice is definitely up to the task.
ROBERTS: And are there built-in safeguards? I mean, do they only work when the car is in park, or are car companies assuming that users will be safe?
Mr. MAGID: No, certainly video, and I believe if they offer Web surfing, will only work while the car is in park. So there are some safeguards on at least what - the functions that take your eyes off the road.
ROBERTS: And were those issues addressed at CES to any extent?
Mr. MAGID: Well, I actually did an interview with a Ford executive, and he certainly addressed it after I prompted him. He certainly offered that we think about this and that we tested it and did a lot of, you know, tests with individuals. So yeah, they thought about it. But you know, in the halls, when you talked to people, you heard a lot more cynicism than you did from the car companies and the technology companies that are promoting this.
ROBERTS: Well, we talked about Ford. Is this a fairly universal thing, or are they out in front?
Mr. MAGID: Ford is out in front. I have to give them credit for that. That's not to say there aren't other technology products going into other cars. Mercedes has done some interesting things. But you know, what happens when these things begin to catch on is that everybody jumps on board. But right now, I think that Ford is the vanguard, at least in the U.S. market.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ben in Boulder, Colorado. Ben, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BEN (Caller): Hi, I live in Boulder, Colorado, right now. I mean, I've been living here for about a year now, and from what I've seen, it's a very wealthy area, and I mean, I just feel like it's just a selling point right now at this point. I mean, it's not safe. You had to prompt the guy in your interview about whether or not it was going to be safe, whether or not there was, you know, safeguards about whether it had to be in park to use it and things like that.
I honestly don't think that they are thinking - you know, they may be out in front, but they're not thinking straight. I mean, they need to have safeguards, and they need to have all sorts of things like that and not just use this Internet in cars as a selling point.
ROBERTS: Ben, thanks for your call. It does - at some point, it is sort of a cool gizmo that gets people to pay attention to a new model of car, especially in a year when people might not be thinking of upgrading to a new model of car. Is it more than that? I mean, what are the advantages, apart from the obvious disadvantages?
Mr. MAGID: Well, I think the advantages are that you take your life with you. By the way, I am very concerned about the safety issues, and I don't work for Ford. You didn't really have to prompt me on that.
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Mr. MAGID: I was going to bring it up. But I think that it does provide this notion of being connected everywhere. I mean, like it or not, our cars, especially for those people who commute, are places where we do a lot of our work. We do talk on the phone, and it is a nice - if you're going to do that, it's great to have all of your contacts there.
Sometimes, you do have to check something. I've been in situations where I've had to pull over. I need to bring out my laptop or my iPhone or whatever and go online because I couldn't remember the address of where I was going or the name of the restaurant. So the idea that your information, your world is accessible to you while you're in the car could be phenomenal. A sales person, a construction worker, anybody really who has need for information or needs to conduct business or commerce from within the vehicle, but the question is simply when and where. I mean, if you're pulled over, I don't see any downsides, but if you're driving, I see a lot.
ROBERTS: And we are going to talk a little bit later in the hour more specifically about the safety aspects of this, and so I want our listeners to know that we will get into that a little bit more thoroughly. But I want to make sure we also cover how far advanced the technology is, how soon we're likely to actually see this in cars and how ready for - how consumer-ready it is.
Mr. MAGID: Well, it depends on how you define it. I mean, some things are available now. For example, you can have your iPhone with you in a car and plug it into your audio system and listen to Internet radio now.
There are devices that allow you to be online in a car. For example, Sprint at CES introduced their 4G Wi-Fi adaptor, and you have this little box - and Verizon and AT&T have them, as well, in 3G, it's a little slower. As long as this box is in the car, anybody in the car can access the Internet. It becomes a Wi-Fi hot spot. That's available now, not built in to the car but accessible from within. So if you're commuting, and you've got four passengers all with their laptops, they can be online while the driver drives the car.
In terms of the in-dash systems, the synch is already here, but the kinds of things we're talking about today really are for the 2011 and 2012 model years. So they're coming, and they're coming fairly soon.
ROBERTS: And if there is Wi-Fi in the car and a GPS system in the car, is there also the ability for information to be pushed to the car? I mean, if I'm driving by a Best Buy, and the GPS flags I'm driving by a Best Buy, would I suddenly get an ad for Best Buy on my display?
Mr. MAGID: That is certainly possible. That's a big theme in this whole notion of GPS-enabled mobile devices, and, you know, virtually every cell phone today does have GPS. So yes, they can push information. And the good thing, by the way, is they can also push upgrades to your automobile functions through the system. So if there - I don't know what - but if part of your car needs to be upgraded, and it can be upgraded electronically or digitally, that could be done, as well, even while you're driving. And the same thing is with diagnostic information: going to the dealer to diagnose a problem while you're driving.
ROBERTS: We will continue our conversation about Internet everywhere with Larry Magid. He's CBS News technology analyst and contributor to cnet.com
We will also be looking about what's good and what's bad about the fact that there will soon be nowhere that you can't surf the Web. We're also taking your calls at 800-989-8255. You can send us email. The address is email@example.com. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Remember when it was a big deal to get your email on your phone? Well, that's nothing. Now we're hooking up to in-flight wireless, and carmakers are revealing models that have Internet on the dashboard.
Soon, the Internet will be everywhere, and there are plenty of implications for everything from manners to safety. I'm talking with Larry Magid this hour. He blogs for CNET and is the technology analyst for CBS News. And we want to hear from you. Do you want Internet everywhere, even on I-95? Although I suppose that's a very East Coast-centric thing to say. From Larry Magid's perspective, do you want it on 101 or 280?
Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from studios at MIT is Nicholas Ashford. He's a professor of technology and policy at MIT. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. NICHOLAS ASHFORD (Professor of Technology and Policy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): You're welcome.
ROBERTS: What does the research say about distractions from new technology in cars?
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, this technology, which is all what's called ICT, information and communication technology, all really requires higher-level visual and audio functioning, which distracts the brain from the most important task, which is driving and maneuvering the automobile in a safe and prudent manner.
If we start with cell phones, whether they are hands-free or not, the data are clear that you have four times the accident potential just by using the cell phone. And then more recently, we're probably all familiar with the Virginia Tech studies, which show that text messaging will increase the crisis events by a factor of 20.
Now, interactive communication technology, which is the kind that's being put in the automobiles now, is even more demanding of higher-level visual and audio functioning, and so it doesn't take a brain surgeon to realize the brain is compromised. And it is an extraordinarily, I think, reckless thing to do to be promoting this technology. The record is very clear. There's a real danger to using this technology for the driver and the pedestrian.
ROBERTS: It's common sense that the more distractions, the less you pay attention to driving, whatever those distractions are, but I'm curious: How are these measured? When you say that a phone call increases the risk of accident fourfold, what - how - where does that number come from?
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, the studies with - the studies with mobile phones come from Harvard and other universities which have done very clear peer-review studies which, in fact, indicate it's a factor of four. The Virginia Tech study shows very clearly it's a factor of 20.
Now, let me answer your question in a different way. I had a teenage daughter for whom I bought a car, and I said one thing I don't want you to do is to play loud music while you're driving. Well, how loud? I mean, you understand that the louder it is, the more distracting. There's a one-to-one correspondence between the level of distraction and the danger posed.
ROBERTS: Well, that brings up the question: At what point does something become a distraction? Is there a threshold?
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, you take your most benign technology, which would be integrated GPS. If all the GPS system does is say turn right, turn left, those single commands, as Mr. Magid had referred to, are not very distracting. They also last a matter of seconds. The longer they last, the more responses they require from the operator, the more distracting.
ROBERTS: And is there a learning curve? At some point, if you're used to having a GPS voice or a radio or whatever it is in your car, does it become less distracting?
Prof. ASHFORD: No, not at all. Interactive technology - are you operating your computer any differently than the first week after you used it? No, I mean, it takes the same attention, the same cerebral process, to do different tasks, which are giving you different information. There's no learning curve here.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Thad(ph) in Gainesville, Florida. Thad, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
THAD (Caller): Thank you very much. I appreciate being on.
THAD: I wanted to ask your caller: Have any studies been done concerning the distractibility of, you know, your kids in the backseat or, you know, your spouse in the passenger seat asking you questions that, you know, you really have to think about the answer for? Is that - is there any comparability between a hands-free, you know, Bluetooth-type device and somebody bothering you just right next to you? I mean, we're not a bunch of single-pilot vehicles out here. We're all, you know - at least most of us aren't. A lot of us have people in the car. So is this - are we cutting it a little bit - or judging them a little too harshly on the, you know, the safety of a hands-free device here?
Prof. ASHFORD: The evidence shows very clearly that whether it's hands-free or it isn't hands-free, there is a significant, a four-fold increase in accident potential. Now, to answer your question, there are studies which show you that if drivers are angry or having a fight with somebody in the cab of their car, their accident potential is greatly increased. I would recommend having neither fights nor TVs on while you're driving your car.
ROBERTS: Thad, thanks for your call. We have an email from Stephanie(ph) in Cincinnati who says: My husband and I have been hooking our laptops to our TV for a year and a half, saving tons of money, only paying for Internet. We have no landline phone bill, no cable, no satellite. If Wi-Fi was in the car, that'd be great. We'd get rid of our GPS system and only use our laptop to navigate us. I'm sure it will distract some people, but they will need to use it responsibly. I say it's totally worth it, and I want it. We would not have to pay - we would not have a need to pay for a data plan on our phones. Larry Magid?
Mr. MAGID: Well, first of all, I agree with her on the connecting your computer or a Roku device or a Boxee or something to your TV. I'm sure my friends at Comcast aren't going to be happy to hear it, but my daughter canceled her Comcast account, or her satellite or cable account, because she's getting all of her TV through the Internet and doesn't see any need to pay for programming.
As for the issue of having it in a car, already you can use your iPhone, if you want, or many cell phones, to do GPS. My son does that, and frankly, it kind of scares me because I have a Magellan GPS, which isn't perfect from a safety standpoint. I admit that when I reconfigure it while I'm driving, I'm taking a risk, and I'm sure that the professor from MIT would probably frown on that.
But when my son pulls his iPhone out of his pocket and does it, he's taking even a greater risk. So I think we really need to think about how these are designed, and if you're going to, for example, use your phone or your laptop in the car, you should have it mounted in a way that it's right there in front of you and make sure that the software is as easy as possible to use, and of course, ideally, you should only be programming it before you start the car.
ROBERTS: Nicholas Ashford, the email brings up a point that I've heard from other people, which is: I know I can use it responsibly. It's the other drivers I'm worried about.
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, you know, none of us like to have our freedom curtailed, but we voluntarily adhere to speed limits. We voluntarily do not drink and drive. There's two freedoms to be balanced: the freedom to do anything in your automobile, which I would argue should be less clear than doing whatever you want in your home. But there's also a freedom from harm for your passengers, for the pedestrians, and these freedoms have to be balanced.
It's just not at all clear that this should be allowed as a matter of law, and let me bring the law into this. In the concept of a law, there's the concept of what's called attractive nuisance. If you build a swimming pool, and you do not put a pence - sorry, do not put a fence to keep the neighborhood kids out, you have created what the law calls an attractive nuisance. You can expect people to use the pool. You can expect that after some period of time, there's a probability that some neighborhood kid is going to drown. The law holds people liable and responsible for those created nuisances.
I'm even surprised that the automobile companies haven't really perceived that they are creating an attractive nuisance. The liability consequences of this technology are immense. It isn't just a question of a person using it responsibly. People don't use cell phones responsibly. People don't text-message responsibly in an automobile. With an even more attractive TV screen flashing information or telling you what's available at Best Buy, I can't imagine why you would think it would be more responsible action.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Al(ph) in Nevis, Minnesota. Al, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
AL (Caller): Well, thank you for taking my call. I would like to speak to this issue from a first-hand experience issue. I do, in fact, have a new product manufactured by Ford, it's a Ford Flex, that has this new technology. And I can speak first-hand, contrary to what the professor guest has implied, I find it has made my driving habits much safer.
I'll give you two examples. On the navigation system on the vehicle, on all times, in real times, it shows exactly where I'm at on a road. It shows upcoming streets and those kinds of things. I do not have to remove my hands from the wheel, and I can keep my eyes on the highway. I do not have to look for road signs. I do not have to wonder where I'm at. I have real-time information at all times, on a very readable, easy-to-read full screen in color, and it makes my driving a lot safer. I'm not braking and slowing down, trying to read street signs or anything like that. It's fabulous, and it's excellent for safety reasons.
Second example: Before I had this vehicle, when my cell phone would ring - I don't make calls when I'm driving. But when the cell phone rings, generally, people reach for it. They try to answer it and they fumble around and it's a very unsafe thing to do, carrying around the cell phone. And most people have one and they have it when they're in the car. Now, you know, under my new Ford Flex, it automatically comes through the dash. I don't take my eyes off the road. I don't take my hands off the wheel. And I can speak to the person who is calling me. Or if I choose to make a call, I can just say, call Tom, and it automatically does it.
ROBERTS: Al, thanks...
AL: It is much safer than where I was two years ago.
ROBERTS: Al, thank you so much for your call. Let's give Nicholas Ashford a chance to respond.
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, you think it's safer but as a matter of statistics, it's not safer. It's your perception that it's safer. And by the way, the interactive GPS system is probably - of all the devices we're talking about, including cell phones - is the safest of all. If it simply tells you to turn right and left, that's another story. And I do appreciate your comparison with having to read street signs and so forth. That's certainly a justification for an interactive GPS. But interactive GPS is not the question. Communication and cerebral function is the question. And being told to turn right or left is very different than asking you to ask when are you going to be home and all kinds of questions which require a higher level cerebral action.
ROBERTS: We're going to leave the roadways for a minute and talk to Micki Maynard. She is the senior business correspondent for the New York Times. She's actually up at North American International Auto Show in Detroit right now.
Thanks for joining us.
Ms. MICKI MAYNARD (Senior Business Correspondent, The New York Times): It's my pleasure.
ROBERTS: And we're actually not talking to you about cars. We're talking to you about airlines. How are people making use of the Internet on airplanes?
Ms. MAYNARD: Well, there are about 600 airplanes that are now equipped with Wi-Fi system. Most of the big airlines have it. Southwest was supposed to be adding it sometime this year. And what the airlines are finding is that as long as it's free, people are happy to use it, but they're a little reluctant to pay for it.
ROBERTS: So the issue in the air is not that people are doing something dangerous. They're not controlling the airplane ideally, but they are...
Ms. MAYNARD: Yeah.
ROBERTS: ...cheek by jowl with somebody else. It brings up etiquette issues and access issues.
Ms. MAYNARD: Yeah. I think one of the issues that came up was not so much people just opening up their laptops and surfing the Web. It was people using Skype and people making video calls. And while that's kind of fun and everybody is getting emails from their friends saying, hey, you know, I'm on an airplane, the problem is if everybody starts doing it then what do you do, because it actually gets around the ban on using cell phones on airplanes. But I don't think people anticipated there would be so much use of the computer to make phone calls.
ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we have an email from Karen(ph) in Kansas City who says, one bad thing about being able to surf the Web anywhere, and this certainly includes airplanes, is that those of us who choose not to spend our every waking moment on a computer are going to be even more chastised by our friends for not being online and treated like pariahs. Social networking online will leave us out of the social circle even more often. And frankly, speaking to each other using real voices while we're seeing each others' real faces will become even more of an anathema. The distraction will not just be technological, it will also be social. And sometimes, that can be even more dangerous. Larry Magid?
Mr. MAGID: Well, first of all, I want to comment on the airline if I can. I commute back and forth to Washington quite often and I fly Virgin America simply because they have Wi-Fi in every flight, so I count on it. Skype is blocked on that. There are probably ways you can make a call on it but they don't make it easy.
But I have to tell you, I do instant messaging, chatting with people in real time. I've taken care of bills. I've actually written articles that have been published by the time I land. And the productivity is phenomenal. But mainly, it just gets rid of the boredom of having to sit on an airplane for six hours and I just find it great. I've also watched movies, of course, with headphones on. And that's one - one system that I'm happy to pay $12 for. Free or not, I think it's great.
But as for the email question - this is a real issue, the haves and have not, the technology divide. It's not just by economics. It's by age. It's by interest level. And I do think that there are people who are finding themselves kind of left out. Now, I think, to some extent, I wouldn't worry too much about that if you don't have a Twitter account or if you're not spending every waking hour on Facebook, I think you could still have a really good life.
But if you're trying to book an airline ticket and have to pay a fee, an extra fee, because you had to buy it by phone, if you're - can't get in touch with your health care provider or you can't get access to your health care records easily, then we are beginning to see some problems. And I do feel some sympathy for certain people who, for whatever reasons - age, illness or language problems - are having more difficulty than others in terms of having access to this technology.
ROBERTS: Well, what about the opposite question, Micki Maynard, that people who have all the access they want, but they want some space where you can't be found? And it's not your car anymore and apparently it's not even your airplane anymore.
Ms. MAYNARD: That's right. The excuse always was you won't be able to reach me. I'll be on a plane. Well, if your boss knows that you're flying Delta, and Delta has Wi-Fi, they may say, well, we know that there's Wi-Fi on your flight from New York to Miami. How come you didn't answer that email? There's - the other issue, too, is, you know, for a lot of people, a plane is sort of space out of time and that's the one opportunity that they get to decompress, to read a book, to read a magazine. And, you know, you might still be able to do that. You can just choose not to turn on your laptop. But the other people around you might take that choice away in a sense.
ROBERTS: And Nicholas Ashford, this genie obviously is not going back in the bottle. So how do we proceed assuming that access is only going to be more prevalent in more aspects of our lives?
Prof. ASHFORD: Well, let me answer that in a question. Let me make a comment though about the invasion of personal space. I mean, the line between professional work and being at home has been really - made very, very fuzzy. We're expected to have a laptop at home or a computer so we can continue to work way into the evening hours. You need to tell me we can't tolerate a 20-minute commute between the office, and office number two, which is our home. This is basically going to make us total automatons. I think, by the way, it - this will be cut in the bud. There is a serious legal liability issue here. And they do create an attractive nuisance. Having this technology in the cab of a car is actually a public safety hazard.
ROBERTS: We have to leave it there, I'm afraid. That's Nicholas Ashford. He's a professor of technology and policy at MIT. He joined us from studios of MIT. We're also joined by Larry Magid, CBS News technology analyst and contributor for CNET.com. He joined us from his home in Palo Alto, California, and Micki Maynard, senior business correspondent for the New York Times. She joined us from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Thanks to all of you.
Ms. MAYNARD: My pleasure.
ROBERTS: Coming up, on the Opinion Page, we'll look at Senator Harry Reid's comments about Barack Obama's race and it's implications for the 2008 elections. Keli Goff tells us what she thinks it says about the senator. That's next. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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