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Driven to distraction: carmakers face questions over gadget risks

Technologies also cause problems for regulators as they try to decide where to draw the line.

The 2014 BMW 428i is introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
The 2014 BMW 428i is introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Image: Chris Carlson/AP/Press Association Images

TALKING ON THE phone while driving is illegal in a growing number of countries – including Ireland – but with the explosion of in-car technologies the potential for drivers being distracted is greater than ever.

The dangers of gadget distraction were highlighted at the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, when a whole day was devoted to the opportunities and risks presented by the so-called Connected Car.

Technologies which make driving safer – from anti-collision systems to devices which prod you awake if you drift off – are increasingly becoming standard on new cars.

But at the same time the modern motorist can choose from ever more sophisticated entertainment systems, while social networking and other hi-tech communications make talking or texting on the phone seem old hat.

“Driver distraction is number one for us,”  Phil Abram, chief infotainment officer for General Motors (GM), told a panel debate on the first preview day of the show.

“It’s important to get that smartphone out of the hands, and safely in the centre console,” he added at the show, which opened  its doors to the public on Friday and lasts through 1 December.

Increasingly powerful smartphones can be connected straight into in-car systems, which often have flat panel displays able to stream music, video and more at the touch of a button, or screen.

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The Mercedes-Benz AMG Vision Gran Turismo concept vehicle is introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

German carmaker Audi presented what it called the “connected car of the future”, touting the new A3 sedan as the first to provide 4G LTE in the vehicle itself.

But a key problem for auto manufacturers stems from the sheer variety of phones, tablets and operating systems, which often fail to work seamlessly with the car itself, according to a study cited last week.

Frustrated motorists are left grappling with infotainment systems that freeze, Bluetooth phones or devices which do not talk to each other, or other glitches which require them to stab at buttons.

“The car manufacturers are really struggling with this,” Peter Skillman of Nokia’s Here mapping unit told the LA Times, which said electronics problems now outweigh mechanical issues as motorists’ top complaint in recent studies.

The sheer proliferation of devices also presents a problem for regulators. Whereas it was relatively easy to ban talking and texting while driving, it is difficult to draw the line with so many technologies.

“We’re not close to a standard on this,” said Kevin Vincent, chief counsel for America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), adding that it is a long way from coming up with new laws.

“We’re making recommendations, but they’re voluntary. There are a lot of questions to be answered. It’s a very complex question,” he said.

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People photograph the interior of the new Ford Edge concept vehicle. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, defended car makers, and put the blame squarely on phones and how they are used.

“The factor that’s causing death on the highways is the device,” he said, while acknowledging the tough task regulators face. “The pace of technology is faster than regulators can cope with.”

Ford vice president Jim Farley highlighted the importance of in-car technology in his opening keynote speech.

“We have literally turned the car into a platform for app developers, who work with us to add value through new features delivered at the speed consumers expect,” he said.

A new Nielsen study, the key findings of which were presented at the show, revealed that people are already shopping from their cars, with Amazon.com the fourth most browsed site.

“It’s early days to be sure, but you can see that some consumers are already turning the car into a shopping centre on wheels,” said an executive from the audience ratings service.

- © AFP, 2013

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