PARIS – Auto makers and suppliers rely on voice technology to improve driver security at the wheel, even as distractions such as the Internet, navigation systems, phone calls and text messages infiltrate the cockpit.

And while scientists and governments debate driver-distraction issues, the industry is trying to cater to customers who see their vehicles as extensions of themselves.

“People don’t want to be out of communication for an hour,” says Jaques Garcin, director of telematic applications for Orange SA, one of three mobile phone operators in France.

Garcin makes his marks during a presentation organized by Nuance Communications Inc., the Boston firm that dominates voice-recognition software.

Orange, BMW AG, TomTom International BV and Parrot SA, all of which use Nuance software to translate spoken commands, argue drivers will use their mobile phones in the car anyway.

Responsible companies must such activity as safe as possible by having voice commands replace physical manipulation so drivers can keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.

However, even the industry admits voice-control, alone, is not enough.

There are two risks in using a mobile phone while driving: “The physical manipulation and the mental inattention,” says Pierre-Marie de Berny, a safety consultant for Parrot, which makes hands-free kits for phones using the car’s speakers and an intergrated microphone.

“Today, technology only reduces the physical manipulation, not the risk of inattention,” he says.

Studies show making or receiving phone calls while driving, even using a hands-free kit, increase accident risks. Texting is identified as an even greater safety threat.

A global-positioning system that speaks to the driver or understands a driver’s voice when hearing the target address may lower the risk of accidents.

Nuance presents a study showing 60%-80% of drivers using navigation systems say they are more relaxed and in control. But mobile phone calls are another story.

In March 2007, a French study by National Interministry Observatory for Highway Safety recommended the passage of a law in the country banning the use of mobile phones, even with hands-free devices, while driving.

Using a handheld phone while driving has been banned in France since 2003, and that law also effectively bans texting.

The decision “to ban only the use of a telephone held in the hand,” says the French study, “has had a regrettable effect in making drivers believe in good faith that the use of a hands-free kit does not pose any safety risk.”

Hands-free systems that use earbuds or a Bluetooth earpiece create their own problems of manipulation and distraction, de Berny says. “Parrot used to sell a kit that used an earpiece, but we abandoned that. We humans are made to function in three dimensions.”

Spain already has banned most hands-free kits, and de Berny says he expects other European countries to follow. The 2007 French study admits a ban on hands-free phone calls would be difficult to enforce, but contends at least drivers would realize there is a risk.

Meanwhile, voice technology is developing at its own pace.

Nuance is working on future software auto makers may want to integrate that connects to a service or allows researching the Internet by voice, understands commands spoken in natural language and composes emails and text messages by dictation.

Orange is developing voice controls for navigation systems on cell phones.

A new BMW vehicle can read with a computer voice news dispatches, and drivers can enter navigation destinations in one phrase, such as “25 Avenue des Champs Elysees, Paris.” Next year, BMW plans to introduce a mobile Internet on backseat multimedia equipment.

“We need to educate people on how to use these things,” says Philippe Jeanrenaud of Nuance.

Already, Nuance software is in 25 million cars in one form or another, he notes, adding it is the role of industry not only to teach people but also to bring voice control to consumers.

De Berny says Parrot this month will release a study that details how drivers use hands-free controls. The report also suggests a solution for the problem of driver distraction that goes beyond Renault SA’s idea of having a vehicle answer the phone with a message the driver is busy, putting the caller on hold.

“The debate (over cell phones and driving) is passionate in France,” de Berny says. “We will have a technological answer for inattention.”