Driven to distraction by in-car displays?
WHEN it comes to dashboard displays that are more like smartphones, two things are clear: Customers want them, and carmakers are intent on supplying them.
But are they really a good idea?
Car companies answer with an emphatic yes. They say outsized dashboard displays that behave more like smartphones will boost revenue and attract buyers.
They also insist that the new screens will make driving less dangerous, because of well-integrated voice controls and large touchscreens that will keep drivers from fumbling with more dangerous mobile phones.
But the increasingly elaborate screens have sparked a broad debate about how much technology is appropriate in a car.
"I think they (the screens) raise serious public safety questions," said Joe Simitian, the former California lawmaker who spearheaded the state's laws on phone use while driving. "From a legislative standpoint, this is going to be something legislators (will) struggle with for years to come."
David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, has written several studies on distracted driving. "You can't be looking at a screen and the road at the same time," he said. The screens "are enabling activities that take your eyes off the road for longer than most safety advocates would say is safe".
His research shows that reading the average text message - a function some of the screens support - takes four seconds, far longer than what he considers safe.
But for carmakers and their customers, the souped-up screens are proving irresistible.
In an Audi A3, for example, drivers who sync their phones with their cars can check for mentions of themselves on Twitter and see those tweets on their dashboards - although not their full Twitter streams. They can upload photos taken on smartphones and request directions to the place where the photo was taken. Text messages pop up on the dashboard, in addition to being read out loud.
"If you don't provide something that is useful, people will just use their smartphones, and we all know that's the biggest driver distraction there is," said Mark Dahncke, a spokesman for Audi.
Up to now, dashboard technology hasn't factored highly in most car-buying decisions, but carmakers expect it to become increasingly important over the next three to five years.
A recent study by market research company J. D. Power found that about 15 per cent of consumers won't buy a car if it lacks the latest technology, compared with just 4 per cent a year ago.
Currently, dashboard displays are lightly regulated. Many states in America forbid the screening of non-navigational videos by drivers while cars are in motion, except for safety video systems designed to help with reversing and other tasks.
Federal motor vehicle standards stipulate only a few rules, including that the brightness on displays be adjustable.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued driver-distraction guidelines for dashboard displays in moving cars. They advise against displays that include photographs or moving images unrelated to driving, and suggest that drivers should not need to tap a button or key more than six times to complete a task.
But so far, the guidelines are voluntary, with carmakers under no obligation to comply.
The auto industry has issued voluntary guidelines of its own. But in many cases, industry standards fall short of the government's.
For example, the industry guidelines say that drivers should be able to complete tasks on the displays in a series of single glances that generally take no more than two seconds each, for a total of 20 seconds. But the government guidelines advise that drivers should be able to complete tasks in a series of 1.5- or two-second glances, for a total of no more than 12 seconds.
Some critics find even that standard too lax. "It should be set up so people can do it in just four glances," says Henry Jasny, vice-president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, DC-based group funded by insurers and others.
His group has asked for the government guidelines to become law, figuring that even imperfect mandatory rules would be better than no requirements and that, during the rulemaking process, the organisation can fight for more stringent regulation.