The federal government has weighed in with "suggestions" about how automakers can reduce distracted driving in the way they treat infotainment technology, a pet cause of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. More than 3,000 people were killed in crashes in 2010 in which distracted driving was a factor, the government auto-safety agency figures.
So LaHood has proffered a number of ways in which automakers can voluntarily help stem the tide of distracted-driving accidents, including simplifying in-car communications systems, designing devices that require only one hand, and disabling manual texting, internet and social-media browsing during driving.
These ideas, and the broader thinking behind them, are both a potentially huge threat as well as a possible opportunity for automakers and their infotainment brands such as Ford's Sync, General Motors' OnStar, Audi Connect and Toyota Entune. For while they, too, want to make sure in-vehicle infotainment is safe, and join LaHood in his overall intent, car companies will have at least four issues with these specific suggestions:
Less is Not More: Auto brands are scrambling to figure out more things for drivers to do in their cars digitally, not fewer. Ford, for example, is experimenting with health-monitoring systems that would, among other things, track a driver's heart functions. Auto makers are well aware of how younger consumers, especially, often care more about connectivity features inside the car than exterior styling or what's under the hood. It will be difficult to square removing distractions with the push for creating more of them.
Elephant in the Car: So far, even LaHood's suggestions haven't addressed smart phones and other portable devices that consumers bring into the car and how they might be made less distracting. It's understandable that regulators first want to focus on the hard-wired infotainment capabilities in cars before tackling imported devices. But because the direction of the auto industry is increasingly to accommodate brought-in devices rather than try to force consumers to work with what's already in the vehicle, it's going to be at least as important to get Apple and Motorola and Samsung on board the distracted-driving effort as GM and Toyota.
It's All in Your Head: Neither do the guidelines apparently acknowledge that the true danger in distracted driving isn't what consumers can or can't do with their hands or their eyes. The real problem is the distractions that take over their minds while they're driving, regardless of whether they're handling all of their electronic communications "hands-free." Anybody who has followed a soccer mom on her cell phone in a minivan or a contractor arguing with a client while driving his pick-up truck knows well that the conversation or activity itself can be more of a distraction than anything else.
Reversing Course: The feds might not get anywhere with asking automakers to reverse technological progress where it's already been deployed. For example, one of the guidelines suggests not putting unnecessary information in the driver's field of vision. That cuts against the efforts that some automakers, especially GM, have been making with head-up display, which projects speed and some other data onto the bottom portion of the windshield so a driver doesn't have to look down at the instrument panel to get such information. Apparently GM wants to go further with head-up display, not retreat.
There's no doubt that distracted driving plays a large and growing role in auto accidents, and may in fact be the biggest roadway safety problem in America, especially among young drivers. But it'll be a complicated path to reduce it.