Cell Phones Only Beginning of Driver Distraction

As technology seeps into a cranny of our lives that was once a data-free haven — our cars — legislators and researchers are taking a hard look at just how many diversions drivers can handle while remaining safe.

Moved by tales of distracted cell phone-wielding motorists, New York lawmakers approved what would be the nation's first statewide ban on driving while using a handheld cell phone. The bill awaits Gov. George Pataki's signature.

So far in 2001, at least 27 states have considered measures aimed at curbing cell phones and other technology in cars. Eleven local jurisdictions now prohibit drivers from using handheld phones while driving.

But cell phones are just the beginning of the technology we'll soon see in our cars. Automotive and mobile technology companies are pouring millions into creating wireless voice and data communication devices to keep us connected while we're behind the wheel.

By 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all new cars are expected to have some form of on-board computer accessible to the driver.

With innovation in car-based technology coming fast, government regulators are grappling with how to balance safety concerns with the latest gadgets. After all, government researchers estimate that 20 percent to 30 percent of all crashes result from some form of driver distraction.

"Our problem now is to understand a new set of distractions associated with an ever-growing array of new in-vehicle electronic devices … rapidly being developed by the electronics and automobile industries," L. Robert Shelton, NHTSA's executive director, told a House subcommittee in Washington last month.

The Information Super-Highway in Your Car

For sure, electronic devices in cars are getting more advanced. Wireless safety and security systems already are installed in some cars, including devices that provide automated directions. Eventually, cars will be portals to all kinds of leisure and information services: from music, news, e-mail and phone calls for drivers to movies and games for passengers.

The pioneering program in the telematics field, General Motors' OnStar, offers roadside assistance, stolen-vehicle tracking and routing services to 1 million subscribers. OnStar allows drivers to communicate with an actual human through voice recognition software so motorists can ask for directions or for the phone number of the closest Mexican restaurant.

Other companies' devices work on a "visual interface" model, such as Clarion's Auto PC or Siemens Automotive's traffic control and information system, Quick-Scout.

In Quick-Scout, a handheld device slips into a docking cradle on the main console of the vehicle and allows downloading of e-mail address books, calendars and phone lists. Auto PC is exactly what it sounds like, a personal computer for your car.

The burgeoning field of "telematics," as it is called, is already a $5 billion-plus business and is expected to multiply several times over the next decade.

And it's no wonder. U.S. drivers, who spend an estimated 541 hours in their cars every year, are a massive, captive consumer audience. An NHTSA survey slated for release this summer found that 54 percent of U.S. drivers usually have a cell phone in their cars or carry cell phones when they drive. Seventy-three percent say they have talked on the phones while driving.

Surf the Web in Your Honda?

But Michael Heidingsfelder, partner and senior vice president of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants in Detroit, said bans on handheld cell phones will likely slow down interest in the telematics market as consumers wonder just how safe and useful some of these devices are.

"All these concerns about distraction will slow down the demand from the consumer side because people will be concerned," he said.

Indeed, it's unclear just how many services and how much information Americans want in their cars. A Forrester Research survey last fall showed that while a majority of consumers want to make phone calls in their cars, less than 10 percent desire Internet access or e-mail capability.

And if politicians are cracking down on handheld cell phones, do these more involved devices have a chance to survive legislative scrutiny?

So far, researchers don't know exactly what role in-vehicle electronic devices play in driving safety, but both the government and automakers are investing in research and development to determine just how many annoyances a motorist can handle.

Scrambling for R & D

The Ford Motor Co. recently announced plans for a $10 million laboratory at its research facility in Dearborn, Mich., to study how much and what kind of data drivers can safely digest while behind the wheel. A government lab studying driver distraction will open at the University of Iowa this summer, said Tim Hurd, NHTSA spokesman.

In the interest of cutting down on driver distractions, many automakers and wireless communications companies are focusing on hands-free and voice recognition devices, similar to the OnStar system, which are considered by many to be safer than handheld units.

Ford and Qualcomm's Wingcast system, for example, will provide hands-free phone and e-mail as well as personalized news, stocks, movie listings and a range of other data when it debuts in Ford vehicles next year.

Other companies developing visual interfaces with actual screens are experimenting with having attention-intensive devices work only when the car is stationary.

"What you'll see now is an increased attention to be sure those devices don't distract the driver," said Dan Garretson, a senior analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass.

But even handheld devices and those using voice recognition software don't necessarily satisfy government safety experts. The NHTSA is planning two dozen studies in the next two years to study how electronic devices in cars contribute to driver distraction.