WASHINGTON — The effort to make car travel more entertaining and productive, but not perilously distracting, has the auto industry walking a tightrope.
As much as they want their cars to appeal to tech-savvy customers who are clamoring for constant access to text messages, streaming music and social media, automakers also must work to minimize the types of driver distractions that could lead to a public safety crisis and stricter regulations on automotive technology.
Automakers don’t want it to come to that. A crimp on innovation wouldn’t just threaten their competitiveness, they say, but could actually worsen the risk of distraction because drivers whose cars don’t live up to their expectations of mobile technology would resort to picking up their smartphones and taking care of business that way.
“This is an area where people have options,” said Anupam Malhotra, senior connected-vehicle manager at Audi of America, which recently struck a deal with wireless provider T-Mobile to cut the price of an in-car Internet connection to about $15 a month.
“You can bring a Wi-Fi device into the vehicle. You can bring your smartphone and turn it into a hot spot,” Malhotra said. “From a strategic standpoint, what we are trying to do is incentivize drivers to not handle devices when they are in the car.”
It’s that “manual-visual” combination — hand off the wheel and eyes off the road — that’s shown to be most dangerous, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland said last week during an interview at his office.
NHTSA has issued guidelines, rather than hard-and-fast rules, for automakers developing their in-car controls for music, climate control and cellphones. Chief among them is what the agency calls its 2-12 test: Can a task — say, choosing a song from a playlist — be done without taking hands off the wheel or eyes off the road for more than two seconds at a time, or 12 seconds total? If so, the feature is fine.
Unless, of course, it involves “scrolling text, moving video and those types of applications that really aren’t appropriate for the vehicle — posting on Facebook, Twitter while you’re under way,” Strickland said. “Those things should be locked.”
The gallery above features five technologies automakers have developed and already integrated into cars. Click through and see if you can guess which ones NHTSA has come down on.