Telematics suppliers hope to avoid distraction regulations

  • 21-Jun-2010 11:22 EDT

Technologies such as turn-by-turn navigation in the Chevy Equinox can reduce driver distraction.

Telematics brings more functions and information into vehicles, but there is concern that this input will have a negative impact on safety. Companies throughout the telematics industry are looking at ways to reduce driver distraction with good user interfaces.

Across the broad supply chain of telematics systems and services, there is a strong feeling that product developers need to focus on safety. Many observers predict that lawmakers will step in if poorly designed user interfaces cause an increase in traffic accidents.

“The industry has to address driver distraction, not wait for the government to step in with regulations,” said Thilo Koslowski, Vice President of Automotive Research at Gartner Inc.

The major concern is that the influx of consumer products is overloading drivers. When drivers have access to the Web, it will only compound the information overload that is already coming with cell phones and other consumer electronics such as MP3 players.

“There’s some concern about too much data coming into the car,” said James Sayer, Associate Research Scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. “There does seem to be a need for prioritizing data’s importance.”

Setting priorities would prevent the phone from ringing when the vehicle senses unsafe driving conditions such as a skid or sharp turn, for example. Panelists at the recent Telematics Detroit conference also noted that telematics can enhance safety with features such as navigation with real-time traffic information.

“Turn-by-turn directions help keep the driver’s eyes on the road; they’re not looking at maps,” said Jim Nickolaou, Active Safety Controls Manager for General Motors.

Speakers also noted that the user interface will play a huge role in the level of distraction that new features bring. There is a solid consensus of opinion that voice recognition is the safest way for drivers to control telematics functions and other consumer devices.

“For the user interface, using voice recognition is almost like talking to another person,” said Vesa Luiro, Nokia’s Automotive Director.

However, there is no consensus on the related issue of cell phones, which have attracted the sort of legislative attention that telematics providers hope to avoid. It is likely that telematics will face similar scrutiny as its acceptance and the number of functions both expand. The opposition to cell-phone use in cars is strong.

“We have called for a national ban on cell-phone usage,” said John Ulczycki, Group Vice President of Research for the National Safety Council. NSC defines distraction as anything that takes the driver’s primary attention away from driving, whether that’s physical or cognitively engages the brain.

The group does not feel that switching to hands-free phones provides a significant improvement. The cognitive load is not reduced, nor is the time of distraction, which is far longer for calls than for tasks such as changing radio stations or eating a hamburger.

“Over 30 studies show no benefit to hands-free calling,” Ulczycki said.

However, that is far from a universal view. Some researchers say that cell-phone bans are ineffective. “Some studies show no change in crash rates in areas that enacted a ban on cell phones,” Sayer said.

As telematics proponents hope to avoid potential regulations, they are questioning whether any future ruling will actually have an impact on usage. They note that laws often don’t prevent people from doing things they aren’t supposed to do in cars.

“Most people don’t think much about legislation,” Luiro said.

But another school of thought says that, when efforts to educate drivers don’t prompt a change from dangerous behavior, strict regulation can drive social change. That is what happened when laws against driving while intoxicated were changed.

“Education by itself has not been shown to reduce engagement in risky behavior. Things like drunken driving have shown that you can only change behavior by rigid enforcement of laws,” Ulczycki said.

If telematics technologies do indeed impact safety, active safety technology might reduce that negative impact. Active safety systems can help prevent distracted drivers from swerving out of their lanes or rear-ending vehicles that slow down. While that is helpful, panelists downplayed active safety’s role in the efforts to combat driver distraction.

“Engagement of the driver is critical for safety,” Nickolaou said. That won’t change until fully autonomous vehicles are on the road, which is quite some time away given the myriad challenges of keeping a car safe at high speeds without human intervention.

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