BABENHAUSEN, Germany – Driver distraction is a problem for high-tech suppliers, as well safety officials.

If drivers don’t use new technology safely, there won’t be a market for “driver-assistance” programs, experts say.

Continental AG’s interior division here is tackling the problem in two ways: Hiding new technologies behind simpler human-machine interfaces and finding methods of communicating new information to drivers without distracting them.

Hiding technology behind menus already is the norm in navigation screens. For instance, in the Volkswagen Golf, Continental’s nav screen has eight buttons to switch among top-level functions, such as Map, Phone and Radio. But behind those controls are some 2,000 settings adjusted by using virtual buttons on the touch-sensitive screen.

The next logical step is a touch screen that is similar to a smart phone, where applications have access to the Internet as well as the car’s global-positioning system and, most likely, information on the car’s Control Area Network bus.

Continental is writing applications for email, navigation, music and other functions that will stream information from the Internet to the car. It also expects third-party apps, such as Shazam, to be offered to drivers, which capture a phrase from a song on the radio and identify it by comparing it to a database on the Internet.

Continental has a joint venture with Deutsche Telecom AG to develop the smart-screen idea that will be ready for market in 2012.

“Your mobile phone, car, computer and home television will all be interfaced” so that each of them has access to information stored somewhere on that personal network, Deutsche’s Marcus Heitmann says.

Continental also is proposing a concept called “Simplify Your Drive,” which hides multiple settings behind a single button.

In a test vehicle shown to the media here, the system programs sport, comfort and eco settings, each one offering a different instrumentation, as well as settings for suspension, gear changes and steering feel.

Ambient lighting is red for sport, blue for comfort and green for eco.

The second problem faced by new technologies is how to communicate with the driver while not distracting him. In recent years, head-up displays have been offered to put more information directly in the driver’s field of vision. Haptic feedback, using the sense of feeling, has been added to visual and auditory signals.

France’s Valeo SA sells lane-control warnings that vibrate the seat when a car begins to drift to the side, while Continental has systems that vibrate the steering wheel.

Last year, Continental began selling an accelerator that taps back at the driver’s foot on the Nissan Fuga in Japan, sold as the Infiniti M35 elsewhere. The vibration tells a driver if he is getting dangerously close to the car in front of him.

In one test car here, Continental rigs the pedal to signal the driver to change gears upward to save fuel. In the test car with an Eco setting, the pedal encourages the driver not to press too hard.

Continental has an ergonomic laboratory to which it invites 150 Babenhausen residents from time to time to test ideas. Sitting at the wheel of a BMW vehicle surrounded by giant screens, testers can drive on virtual freeways, country roads or city streets, allowing the company to gauge their reactions to different instruments and controls.

Recent studies have been able to determine where best to put speed-limit signs and how people react when they get a false alarm from the seatbelt pre-tensioner, lab manager Stephan Cieler says.

Besides seeing, hearing and feeling, Continental also is testing the idea of communicating via the sense of smell. When testing the sport-comfort-eco simplified driving idea, engineers tried introducing an aggressive smell for sport, a lemony scent for eco and a vanilla-cinnamon scent for comfort.

“The first feedback was positive,” Cieler says. “But it is difficult at the same time.” Continental is not pursuing the idea because smell is “very individual” and odors linger.