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Eye On the Road: Automakers Pressured to Minimize Gadgetry that Distracts

Source: WSJ - Joseph White

Posted on 01 Jun 2011

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Auto makers are coming under fresh pressure to minimize distracting gadgetry in new cars.

"There's absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview. "It's not necessary."

Mr. LaHood is pushing to open new fronts in his long-running campaign against the proliferation of technology-driven diversions. In conversations with industry chief executives, Mr. LaHood says he is making it plain he isn't pleased with the trend toward putting more media feeds and gadgetry into the cockpits of new vehicles.

Mr. LaHood and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports to him, have the power to curb the info-tainment technology built into cars if they can demonstrate a threat to safety. He is also urging auto executives to free up advertising money to create public-service announcements that remind motorists to stay focused on the road, and not to text and drive.

BMW AG is the second major car maker after Subaru to say yes. It will launch later this month a television spot that starts with what appears to be a spoof of overprotective parents, but ends with disturbing images of a mother texting behind the wheel, oblivious to the sport utility vehicle that is about to broadside her car.

BMW North America Chief Executive Jim O'Donnell says the company plans to run the spot, and related print and online advertising, through the end of the year.

Agreeing to warn drivers against texting on a hand-held phone doesn't mean BMW plans to opt out of the in-car media revolution. Customers are demanding more and more information, Mr. O'Donnell says. BMW's approach is to manage that flow, not cut it off, such as by making brief bursts of information available on head-up displays, he says.

Other auto makers are trying to devise better ways to manage an increasing flow of information and entertainment, while trying to avoid running afoul of Mr. LaHood and his auto-safety regulators.

General Motors Co.—still part-owned by the government—is promoting its youth-targeted Chevrolet Cruze compact with an ad that highlights a Facebook-update feature, delivered by a voice program through the car's Onstar communication system.

A GM spokesman says Onstar's Facebook application, which drivers can use with a push of one button while they keep their eyes on the road, is still in the "beta" test phase. No decision has been made to roll it out broadly.

Mr. LaHood's department aims to finish work by early next year on a new set of guidelines governing the design and operation of in-vehicle communications technology, including studies of whether simply making communication via text or voice "hands free" makes a significant difference in safety.

Some studies have suggested that having a phone conversation is just as distracting to a driver using a headset or an audio system as for someone holding a phone.

Anyone who has driven a new car decked out with the latest technology knows it is possible for a driver to get a dizzying amount of information about the vital signs of the car, its location, the types of music available from various sources, who's calling on the phone, or even whether a car is hiding in the blind spot.

Dictating commands into voice-activated navigation devices or telephone interfaces can be an involved process, especially for owners new to the gadgetry.

At the same time, commuting in a modern luxury car—or even a new compact car—can be a passive, dull experience. The cruise control can manage the speed. The transmission shifts itself. The scenery is the same as it was the day before.
Small wonder that even drivers who know better are tempted to sneak a peek at the BlackBerry or hunt for a new audio book on the iPod.

And the number of new vehicles equipped with advanced in-vehicle info-tainment systems could more than triple by 2017 to more than 60 million a year world-wide, with more than 17 million in North America, says analyst Egil Juliussen of consultancy IHS iSuppli.

Mr. LaHood compares the effort to change public attitudes toward distracted driving to the long-running efforts to change attitudes and behavior related to drinking and driving. The Transportation Department's 2012 budget requests about $50 million to expand efforts to ticket people texting while driving, following the example of the "Click It or Ticket" campaigns that helped boost seat-belt use to about 85% in 2010.

Still, Mr. LaHood says he knows what he's up against in the fight against distracted driving.

"We know people are hooked on cellphones and texting devices." he says.