LAS VEGAS – It seems almost quaint, but BMW’s Tom Baloga recalls back in the 1990s when German auto makers, citing driver distraction, initially balked at putting cupholders in cars.

Driver-distraction issues have gone well beyond that. Today, they center on high-tech equipment ranging from built-in infotainment systems to smartphones many motorists carry with them to chat, text and more.

Drivers armed with mobile devices are more dangerous than any telematics auto makers install in vehicles, argues Baloga, BMW North America’s vice president-engineering.

“People are bringing distractions into vehicles,” he says during a panel discussion, “Integrating Entertainment and Technology While Preserving Safety in Vehicles,” at the annual J.D. Power Automotive Marketing Roundtable here.

Driver distraction is not limited to technology, Baloga says, citing traffic safety studies. “Fifty percent of the time, people do something other than just drive. That includes reading, playing a musical instrument and painting their toe nails. These are facts.”

But distracted drivers tend to use mobile devices more than they groom themselves. A question for the panel: How do you get drivers hell-bent on using their smartphones to do so as safely as possible?

Baloga and others say the best way is to pair up mobile devices with

vehicle telematics systems with voice activation and other features that reduce the chances of driver distraction.

“Thoughtful integration can balance the need to be connected with safer vehicle operation,” he says, adding that many drivers determinedly will use their mobile devices one way or another.

The absence of cupholders didn’t stop some motorists from drinking beverages, Baloga says. He recalls an accident that occurred after a man driving an old-model pickup truck without cupholders spilled hot coffee on himself. “He lost control of the vehicle and it landed in a swimming pool.”

Likewise, people bring smartphones into their vehicles, regardless of government exhortations not to do so, he says. “They will not lock them in the glove box or trunk, as the U.S. Department of Transportation has suggested.”      

Conference panelists say auto makers have come far in developing infotainment systems that offer advanced features yet are easier to use than their predecessors.

Some people read Twitter and Facebook messages while driving. “They insist on doing that, so we thought, ‘How can we limit it and make it reasonably safe,” Baloga says.

BMW designed a system with a screen that shows only the first three lines of an incoming social-media message, he says. “People who want the whole message can push a button and the system will read it to them. But reading three lines takes two seconds, the scientifically safe maximum for a driver’s eyes to be off the road.”

Yet even that seems like a relatively long time when driving, says Christopher Chapman, chief designer for Hyundai North America. “A lot can happen in two seconds if someone is not looking at the road.”

Hyundai has experimented with advanced telematics systems and concepts including ones that come close to thinking for the driver, he says. “The concept of a car that can figure out what I want is a little abstract but it generates interesting ideas.”

However he worries about things going too far, with cars becoming infotainment systems on wheels rather than moving vehicles with safe-to-use telematics.

“I have an aversion to (complicated) infotainment and rolling vehicles,” he says. “If you are just concentrating on the latest technology, and cramming it into a car to be first to market, it raises quality and ethical questions.”

He agrees with Baloga on one thing: “You can’t prevent someone from using a mobile device in a car.” 

Ranging from fatalities to parking-lot fender benders, about 1 million traffic accidents a year are attributed to technology-related driver distraction, says panel moderator David Kiley.

“A great deal of tension is in the marketplace because of these issues,” he says, adding that the seemingly best infotainment systems contain the latest technology with refined voice-activation capabilities.

General Motors touts its new CUE in Cadillac luxury cars as a system matching high functionality and ease of use.

“It has an elegant interface, accommodates multiple mobile devices, has voice controls and understands in a very intuitive, natural way,” says Don Butler, Cadillac’s vice president-marketing.

Cadillac buyers receive an iPad containing a tutorial to familiarize them with CUE. Cadillac dealership salespeople are extensively trained to explain to customers how it works. Twenty-five experts staffing a call center “can go deeper,” Butler says.

“The No.1 question from dealers is, ‘How will older buyers adapt to this technology?’” says Jim Vurpillat, Cadillac’s director-global marketing.

Cadillac wants to avoid the negative customer feedback some other auto makers have received after introducing infotainment systems that baffled many car owners.

For instance, critics branded BMW’s original iDrive as something designed by German engineers for German engineers. Ford has reworked its MyFord system to make it less complicated.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com