SAE Congress panel pays attention to distracted driving

  • 18-Apr-2011 02:14 EDT

“Driver distraction is the number one cause of auto accidents,” Delphi’s Beth Schwarting said in an SAE 2011 World Congress panel presentation.

Regardless of what legislators and safety experts say, motorists are going to divide their behind-the-wheel time between driving and searching for MP3 tunes, talking on cell phones, and texting. It’s up to automotive engineers to come up with techniques that let drivers safely do the things they want to do.

Drivers will be distracted by tasks as diverse as eating, grooming, and controlling electronic equipment that’s built into the vehicle or carried in. It’s no secret that these distractions cause many crashes, according to speakers on an SAE 2011 World Congress panel, "The Challenges of Implementing New Technologies While Improving Safety."

“Driver distraction is the number one cause of auto accidents, at 76%,” said Beth Schwarting, Vice President of Electronic Controls at Delphi Electronics & Safety. “Many of them occur on straight roads on clear days.”

Legislators in some areas have passed laws banning handheld cell phone conversations and texting, but that hasn’t stopped people from performing these tasks. So it’s up to engineers to devise human-machine interfaces that reduce distraction.

“We need to use technology to enable drivers to do the things they want to do safely,” said James Buczkowski, Global Director, Electrical & Electronics Systems, Ford Motor Co. “If it’s important to the driver, they will do things any way they can unless we deliver safe ways for them to do these things.”

When that happens, it will attract customers while also improving safety. Panelists noted that when drivers can enjoy being in their vehicle, they will form a tight attachment to it.

“We have to maximize the wow factor with vehicles that are fun to drive and engage the customer,” said Douglas Patton, Senior Vice President Engineer, Denso International America.

Voice recognition is one of the primary technologies being used to control complex tasks such as dialing a phone, managing an MP3 player, or controlling a telematics system. Thomas Schalk of telematics provider ATX Group explained that voice lets drivers do tasks without taking their eyes from the road very often. He cited a university study of 24 subjects showing that people entering a text message with a handheld device glanced away from the road 3472 times vs. 170 with voice input.

However, he noted, voice can’t fail if it’s going to gain widespread acceptance. “If accuracy isn’t high enough, people won’t view it as reliable and they won’t use it,” said Schalk, Vice President of Voice Technology.

Though voice is seen as a good interface for many tasks, panelists generally agreed that other input techniques are needed. Some tasks are just as easily handled by switches and push buttons.

“No one technology can solve everything. You need to use all the technologies that are available,” Patton said.

An audience member asked whether it’s possible to put too many systems in a vehicle. This sort of over-engineering can happen, panelists agreed. “There’s a fine line,” Schwarting said. "There’s a tremendous amount of technology available. It becomes a matter of affordability when you’re deciding what to use."

Buczkowski added that it’s ultimately up to OEMs to understand their customers in deploying technology. An over-engineered car occurs only when OEMs don’t understand their customers, he said.

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