THE BLOG
04/28/2014 01:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

Hey, Auto Industry: Eyes Straight Ahead!

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Photo credit: Jonathan E. Chen

With the deadly threat of distracted driving receiving heightened attention, an aggressive tug-of-war is underway among government regulators, auto manufacturers, researchers and consumer advocates over how far to go in enabling drivers to operate complex infotainment technologies in moving cars.

Thanks to strong leadership from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) over the past five years, the distracted driving problem is now front-and-center on the policy agenda. And, all but nine states have passed laws to address the problem.

DOT's National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) has issued a policy statement that is remarkably blunt:

"The primary responsibility of the driver is to operate a motor vehicle safely. The task of driving requires full attention and focus. Drivers should resist engaging in any activity that takes their eyes and attention off the road for more than a couple of seconds. In some circumstances even a second or two can make all the difference in a driver being able to avoid a crash."

Likewise, the National Transportation Safety Board has come out swinging:

"Portable electronic devices that do not directly support the task at hand have no place in vehicles, planes, trains, and vessels. States and regulators can set the proper tone by banning the nonessential use of such devices in transportation. Companies should develop and vigorously enforce policies to eliminate distractions. Manufacturers can assist by developing technology that disables the devices when in reach of operators. Accident investigators at the Federal, state, and local levels should also incorporate in their protocols a system for checking whether the nonessential use of portable electronic devices led to accidents; such information is essential to better identify safety issues and where to dedicate resources to stop this dangerous behavior."

And yet, some key players in the auto industry have taken a starkly different approach, seemingly motivated in part by a palpable sense of existential crisis that hangs over the auto sector. For example, in comments at a workshop, Diurmuid O'Connell, VP of Business Development at Tesla Motors, put it this way:

"The value proposition of a car is fundamentally changing. Younger Americans who are developing earning potential now have much less fundamental interest in cars. The totem of social acceptance is no longer personal mobility, it's personal connectivity ... it's the smart phone. And so, you need to architect a different value proposition."

Mercedez-Benz expressed a similar view in a statement presented to NHTSA:

"Consumer demand for navigation and information functionality is increasing. Reasonable consumer demands should be met."

And so, leading car companies are moving rapidly ahead in a veritable arms race to win the favor of the Connected Generation. For sure, auto companies and their executives care a lot about passenger safety, and they've done a tremendous amount to improve it. But when it comes to distracted driving, the auto industry has an inherent conflict of interest, and cannot be the final arbiter of guidelines to curb the problem.

A leading trendsetter in the technological arms race is Tesla's Model S, the world's first luxury electric sedan. The Model S sports a gigantic and revolutionary 17-inch touch screen (the size of two iPads), which is mounted vertically down the middle of the dashboard and angled toward the driver. The screen offers a smorgasbord of options, repeatedly drawing the driver's attention away from the road ahead.

Indeed, Tesla has eliminated nearly all physical buttons and controls from the dashboard, shifting most functions to the touch screen while greatly increasing the complexity of many tasks. For example, the screen displays highly-detailed images from Google Maps, and offers multi-touch capabilities for zooming in and out on the maps, displaying satellite and street-level views, and the like. The touch screen also offers e-mail capability, enabling a driver to read incoming messages and type outgoing ones on a virtual keyboard. Using the system's Internet browser, a driver can follow breaking news, check stock prices, or choose a restaurant.

In contrast to some competitors, Tesla does not lock out any of the touch screen capabilities when the vehicle is moving, relying instead on the good sense of its customers.

Despite Tesla's tiny current market share, it is exerting an outsized influence on the auto industry through its leadership in innovation.

Similarly, Mercedes-Benz is working on "enhanced reality" technology that displays visual information (like nearby restaurants) on the windshield, and enable drivers to manipulate the information by waving their hands.

Mercedes' current infotainment system, COMAND Online, already offers Internet browsing. According to the company's website, "customers can either browse freely when the vehicle is stationary or call up a Mercedes-Benz app with pages that load extremely quickly and are also easy to use while driving." The system's music search function "enables drivers and passengers to search the hard disc, SD memory cards, USB sticks, CDs and DVDs for specific music tracks and artists ... If a name needs to be entered, the software will also tolerate spelling mistakes. The driver is therefore able to devote full attention to the traffic."

Although in-car infotainment systems have been linked to only a small number of auto crashes in the past, all bets are off when the new generation of systems becomes widely deployed. The National Safety Council has expressed deep concern that "the integration of these electronic devices into vehicles may irrevocably drive consumer demand and influence driver behavior, and create a greater risk than that of handheld mobile devices alone."

Meanwhile, NHTSA has been plowing ahead with development of voluntary, non-binding guidelines for in-car, portable, and voice-activated infotainment systems. In April 2013, NHTSA issued its first set of guidelines, which call on car companies to limit the distraction risks associated with manufacturer-installed systems. Among other things, the guidelines call for disabling specific operations of infotainment systems unless the vehicle is stationary and shifted into park. The guidelines target manual text messaging, Internet browsing, and the display of web pages and social media content.

Although voluntary, the guidelines will have teeth: any company that flouts them will run the risk of liability lawsuits. However, the published guidelines for in-car systems won't become active for another two years. And subsequent guidelines, addressing portable devices and voice-activated systems, are even farther off. Over time, the political situation in Washington may become increasingly permissive, so there's no guarantee that NHTSA's first generation of voluntary guidelines will be the last word.

What's needed now is a far-reaching public discussion about what we as a society want to do about this problem. Precisely how much do you care whether the driver who's coming at you or your family at 60 miles an hour from the opposite direction is typing on a touch screen, or waving his hands at the windshield to manipulate visual information?