DETROIT – Electronic features are finding their way into vehicles at an alarming rate compared with the industry’s first 80 years, and the pace of that proliferation is accelerating, experts say.

AM radios first became available in 1930, but FM radio didn’t arrive until 1952. Tape followed 12 years later, while CD players were introduced in 1982.

Meanwhile, the last decade has seen the debut of DVD players, satellite radio, high-definition radio, navigation systems and MP3 adaptors. And more is on the way, panelists say during a discussion on vehicle human-machine interface (HMI) at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show.

“The first 80 years was pretty limited,” says Michael Tschirhart, advanced HMI design manager for Visteon Corp. “We’re now in an era of unprecedented change for vehicle HMI.”

Adds Frank Homann, vice president-electronics solution group for Continental AG: “So much stuff is coming into vehicles.”

Auto suppliers say the challenge is to make sure impending HMI is intuitive and doesn’t contribute to distraction, while also blending with the overall vehicle interior. “Safety is No.1,” Homann says.

The use of integrated voice-activated communication and entertainment systems, such as Sync, developed by Ford Motor Co. and MicroSoft Corp., will play a key role, he adds.

“I really have to applaud Ford for putting in a device for hands-free phone calling and music search,” Homann says, noting voice-activation technology is improving. “The systems coming out are beyond belief.”

Twenty-two percent of car accidents or near-accidents are due to non-driving related distractions, says Steve Polakowski, executive director-advanced interiors and electrical/electronics systems for Magna International Inc.’s Decoma International subsidiary.

“We have to deal with new functions but there must be a strong consideration of safety aspects,” he says of HMI features. “HMI are three simple letters, but it is extremely complex. It can create information overload. Our objective needs to be: minimize distractions.”

Accordingly, HMI system developers are putting increased focus on improved center-stack configurations, tactile controls on the steering wheel and better versions of head-up, light-emitting diode windshield displays.

Other anti-distraction features cited by panelists include larger, well-illuminated display screens and clearly identified buttons and knobs.

Also promising is the prospect of using rear-view mirrors to display navigation and rear-camera images, Polakowski says, adding 93% of focus-group participants say the mirror is “a natural place” for certain types of information.

It’s important to create an HMI comfort level for consumers, he says. “Bad HMI can create customer dissatisfaction.”

Driver “wellness” figures into safety, says Tschirhart, whose educational credentials include a doctorate in cognitive psychology. “For example, if mood (instrumentation) lighting can make the consumer more calm, then it can have a collateral benefit,” he says.

Human-machine “interface” is a misnomer, says Rodger Eich, studio design manager for interiors supplier JCI. It should be human-machine “interaction,” with an emphasis on understanding how the human brain works.

“We try to map the human mind,” he says of HMI automotive efforts.

Citing the array of in-car HMI systems available today, Eich uses an updated take on the famous quote by Rene Decartes to issue a warning about the modern motorist’s mindset: “I think, therefore I need to do something.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com