In-car entertainment and information applications are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but they are also adding to the number of distractions that can make driving more dangerous.
Vying for drivers' attention are systems that can run smartphone applications on the vehicle's dashboard console. Navigation and car information systems are also feeding more information to drivers, which represent yet another distraction.
As a remedy, electronic suppliers have developed systems that they say reduce what IHS Automotive describes in a recent report as "cognitive overload."
While mostly existing in prototype models previously, new electronic systems that are seeing commercialization incorporate voice-command controls used to run smartphone applications hands-free. Improved console designs also have interfaces that more clearly communicate information to drivers, thus helping to mitigate the amount of time a driver must interact with the car's instrument panel.
So far, voice recognition has been mainly used for basic functions such as placing phone calls hands-free, and it has seen large-scale adoption. According to IHS Automotive, voice recognition systems have begun to trickle down from the luxury segment to the mainstream car sector. About 80 percent of all new cars sold in North America and Europe offer some sort of voice-activated controls, IHS says. And more advanced voice-activation applications for smartphones have begun to move from the prototype stage to commercialization.
Mercedes has begun to offer a voice-activated system in its A-Class models. The system connects to an iPhone and runs the smartphone's applications on the car's dashboard console. The driver and passengers can run Facebook, Twitter, email, and other iPhone applications on the console.
BMW offers infotainment applications for its 1 Series that can be downloaded directly onto an in-car computer and run on the console. In addition to current events, restaurant and hotel information, and other content that the system wirelessly streams to the car, BMW 1 Series models offer an application that allows drivers and passengers to listen to and dictate text messages and emails with voice-only commands.
GM and Honda are beginning to offer cars that run Apple's Siri voice recognition software. GM is offering systems that can host Siri in its 2013 Chevrolet Spark and Sonic models as part of its Mylink infotainment offering, while Honda says it plans to offer Siri in both the Acura and Honda models. Audi, Ford, GM, Peugeot, Toyota, and Volkswagen are expected to launch similar voice-activated smartphone applications.
A key concern is to offer drivers and passengers in-car systems that are as easy to use as they are safe. Ford's Sync infotainment system, which launched over three years ago, was heavily criticized because its controls for managing media playback and other applications were difficult to master.
According to IHS Automotive, carmakers have taken cues from Apple and Android smartphone interfaces when designing upcoming infotainment systems that are supposed to be very easy to operate and use.
To meet demand for easier-to-use systems, IHS Automotive says suppliers have developed so-called "instrument clusters." These systems are designed to reduce driver distraction since they purportedly offer improved clarity and ease of use for in-car functions such as air and temperature control and navigation. Automotive supplier Visteon, for example, has developed consoles that combine LCD screens and 3D graphics with a 1,920 x 720 resolution. The idea is to de-clutter and simplify displays, so that when drivers are glancing at content on the console screen, the information is much clearer and accessible than it would be on traditional consoles.
Visteon's instrument cluster designs recently became available in the 2013 Lincoln MKZ in North America, while other mainstream carmakers are expected to adopt the system from Visteon and other suppliers, IHS Automotive says.
However, running apps, even when voice-activated, or glancing down at graphically efficient instrument cluster panels to check navigation status or other information, will still serve as potential distractions. But short of banning the use of infotainment and communications applications while driving altogether, these technologies should help to mitigate the risk. Meanwhile, their effectiveness in preventing injury and death remains to be seen.