SAN JOSE, Calif. -- American drivers are about to become a lot more distracted.
As safety officials fret about drivers taking their eyes off the road to play with smartphones, automakers from Detroit to Japan are rolling out vehicles that are becoming virtual iPads on wheels. Next-generation vehicles, safety experts warn, could make multitasking motorists even more of a hazard on the nation's roads and freeways. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called distracted driving "a dangerous epidemic."
What began as perks for luxury cars are now becoming standard features of lower-end vehicles, said Carroll Lachnit, an editor at auto information site Edmunds.com.
Motorists can press steering-wheel buttons to buy movie tickets and give voice updates for their Facebook pages. Daimler AG, the German manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz and other vehicles, is working on technology that will enable drivers to read information on the windshield by waving their hand. Ford is offering consumers a car system that converts smartphones into routers, giving passengers Internet access while barreling down the road.
"It's a little bit of an arms race," Lachnit said.
Within five years, more than 90 per cent of new cars will come equipped with Internet-connected technology features, said Dominique Bonte, group director of telematics and navigation at ABI Research, a technology consulting firm.
Ford CEO Alan Mulally has coined a new slogan for his company: "Ford, The App of Choice for Car Buyers." Last month, Ford announced it was setting up a research center in Palo Alto, Calif., joining other carmakers that have opened up offices in Silicon Valley working on new advances in automotive technology that emphasize computer science and Internet communications.
The merging of Detroit and Silicon Valley's mobile technology has U.S. government officials increasingly concerned. Last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed new dashboard technology guidelines that calls for automakers to ensure these new systems are automatically disabled once a vehicle is moving to deter distracted driving.
"Auto manufacturers are under big pressure to bring more technology into the car," Bonte said. "We are used to all this technology at home, on our mobile phones, tablets and computers. At the same time, they have the very big responsibility of keeping driving safe. It's a contradiction."
Automakers are chasing members of the millennial generation -- ages 19 to 31 and nearly 80 million strong -- who see app technology as extensions of themselves. A recent survey published by consulting company Deloitte revealed that 75 per cent of these consumers want touch-screen technology in their cars and nearly as many want in-dash apps.
"There is a sense among carmakers that if they don't start presenting these kinds of vehicle systems, they will be left in the dust," Lachnit said.
Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electrical and electronics systems, said a driving motivation behind his company's connected car technology is the fact consumers are engaging in these activities already, often unsafely, as they put the pedal to the metal.
Indeed, a survey sponsored last year by insurer Liberty Mutual and Students Against Destructive Decisions revealed that more than half of high-school students admitted to sending text messages while driving.
The iPhone revolution is "changing the behaviours of people, whether they are in their car or not," Buczkowski said. "Young people today are interested in the latest phone, even more so than the latest car."
Ford, which deploys voice-command technology in its new models, tests every new application it adds to its cars to ensure it doesn't lead to dangerous distractions, he said, adding: "We do a lot of experimenting."
Ford's latest connected technology enables motorists to verbally select music, directions and even retrieve stock quotes. They can also listen to text messages and send them. The messages drivers can send, though, are limited to a collection of 15 pre-written texts, such as, "I'm going to be late," and can only be edited when the car is not moving.
But despite such safeguards, industry and government experts worry as car lots fill up with automobiles with touch-screen dashboards.
LaHood, whose agency is pressuring states to outlaw texting and handheld phone use while driving, has called for more research on "other distractions" in the car.
In California, it's illegal for drivers to chat on a cellphone without a hands-free device or send, read and write text messages. Drivers under the age of 18 are banned from talking on cellphones, even with hands-free devices.
The National Transportation SafetyBoard recommends similar regulations for all 50 states after investigating a deadly 2010 Missouri chain-reaction accident involving two school buses caused by a 19-year-old driver after he sent or received 11 text messages just before the pileup.
The brain is not wired for multitasking, said Stanford University researcher Clifford Nass, who specializes in automobile interfaces and is a consultant to automakers.
"Yes, it will create more distraction," Nass said of next-generation auto infotainment systems. "There really hasn't been enough research on how to safely design for these things."
Drivers whose eyes glance away from the road for more than two seconds increase the risk of a crash by at least two times, according to a study commissioned by the NHTSA.
David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, is concerned that touch-screen dashboards require more attention than, say, pushing buttons on a radio or CD player. Game consoles such as the Xbox rely on the tactile experience of touching a button so users don't have to take their eyes off the screen. Touch-screen controls, on the other hand, require users to focus on what their fingers are reaching for, Champion said.
"I hate to stifle innovation, but I think there should be some sort of requirement that the controls in cars be intuitive and don't require taking your eyes off the road for long periods of time," he said.
Champion also believes speech-command technology is problematic.
"Voice controls are OK as long as you don't have an accent," he said. "The more mental energy you are using to enunciate words to make sure the system understands you, the less attention you are paying to the road."
Silicon Valley is sure to play a major role in these new innovations, said Alison Chaiken, a member of a new group, Silicon Valley Automotive Open Source, which aims to find ways to make automobiles more technologically advanced but also safer. For instance, she believes technology used in cameras to detect red eyes could be deployed in vehicles to prevent people from falling asleep behind the wheel by sounding a beep when eyelids shut.
But a lot of the emerging dashboard technology is untested and will take time to figure out how they can be deployed safely, Chaiken said.
"It's going to take five years," she said. "First, we will make systems worse. That's what always happens."
-- San Jose Mercury News
New Connections: To meet the demands of the iPhone generation, automakers are rolling out models packed with new information and entertainment features.
BMW: New models come with Internet access and allow videos to be viewed through an iPhone and on-demand streaming music.
Ford: Using voice commands, drivers can make phone calls, hear in-coming text messages and get news updates.
General Motors: Motorist can play with a 7-inch, high-resolution touch screen. System also allows text messaging and audio streaming from smartphones.
Mercedes-Benz: Voice-activating system for radio, phone and navigation system and comes with a Facebook app.
Tesla Motors: Upcoming Model S will be equipped with Internet access and a 17-inch touch screen.