Final Inspection

A Temporary Distraction?


Worried about driver distraction in an era of prolific text-messaging and complex onboard entertainment and information systems?

Don’t sweat it, a key Delphi executive says. Everything is going to be OK.

That it is becoming harder for drivers to keep their eyes – and minds – on the road is undeniable.

But driver distraction is nothing new, says Robert W. Schumacher, who heads advanced product and business development for the electronics supplier.

“As long as we’ve been designing automobiles there have been concerns of distraction and safety,” he says.

And although we’re encountering a bit of a distraction bubble as drivers bring sophisticated smartphones, iPods and portable navigation devices inside a vehicle already packed with its own confusing array of electronics, auto makers and suppliers are well on their way to solving the problem, the Delphi official contends.

It’s easy to see why U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has targeted driver distraction as the nation’s No.1 enemy in the quest to cut traffic fatalities and costly fender benders.

Government data indicate 76% of all crashes occur as a result of driver inattention. With 34% of American 16- and 17-year-olds and 47% of all adults admitting to texting while driving, that rate could rise.

Studies show the risk of a collision jumps an alarming 400% when the driver is using a handheld device.

But the current furor over cars, cell phones and text-messaging likely is stirring up a little déjà vu for some industry veterans.

Schumacher points out the first in-dash pushbutton radios that began appearing in automobiles in the mid-1930s also were considered dangerous distractions for drivers.

“Some municipalities wanted to outlaw them,” he says.

Sound familiar?

Schumacher, who this week showed off Delphi’s future vehicle-cockpit strategy that embraces smartphone functionality, says the industry is well along in envisioning ways to minimize distraction problems caused by today’s electronics.

Already there is international consensus on certain guidelines regulating the amount of time a driver should have to spend completing a task (less than 15 seconds); the time it should take to absorb information being presented (less than 2 seconds) and how far the driver’s eyes should be encouraged to wander (no more than 20 degrees from straight ahead), among other factors, the Delphi exec says.

Driver performance improves with some stimulation and deteriorates with too much. The key will be to find the sweet spot and stay there as new electronic gizmos continue to roll out, Schumacher says, adding, he believes the industry is up to the task.

“We know how to do this,” he promises. “Nobody talks about the danger of car radios (any more). Even with smartphones, we think we know how to mitigate distraction.”

In the meantime, a little caution is advised.

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What's Final Inspection?

WardsAuto editors share insights and observations on the global auto industry.


David E. Zoia

As Editorial Director, I oversee much of what goes into, enjoying a ringside seat that lets me observe up close just about every facet of the industry worldwide. I have covered the...

James M. Amend

James Amend is an associate editor at, covering day-to-day business and product news at General Motors. He also leads coverage of regulatory and environmental issues, as well as the...
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