Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – As car buyers are demanding more content inside their vehicles, it falls to interior designers to make interaction with the technologies safe and satisfying.

A trunk-full of statistics confirm the importance of designing systems that allow drivers to safely use navigation, hands-free calling, outbound texting and soon, social media.

For example, there are 275 million cell-phone users in the U.S. who demand fulltime access to their devices.

But federal research shows 16% of all fatal crashes in 2008 involved distracted driving and 28%, or 1.6 million, of all car collisions per year occur while drivers are using a device.

Furthermore, a crash becomes four times more likely when a driver is using a cell phone, and multiplies by 20 times when the driver is text-messaging.

“Clearly, there is a recognition something must happen,” Michael Tschirhart, manager-Human Machine Interaction at auto supplier Visteon Corp., tells a panel on “Responsible Connectivity” at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here.

And while public-service programs such as a campaign by television personality Oprah Winfrey and General Motors Co. are educating drivers on the dangers of distracted driving, Tschirhart says many Americans are convinced some risks are less serious than others.

For example, he says, psychologists have found many people consider air travel risky, although the chances of a plane crashing are extremely small. But many of those same individuals will perform various tasks while driving, despite ample statistics that clearly underscore the dangers.

“People call it multitasking; I call it task-switching,” Tschihart says. “People aren’t doing two tasks at once, they are doing one task, switching to another and back…and performance on both tasks goes down.

“People are overconfident,” he adds. “And people who think they would be very good at multitasking are sometimes the worst.”

Further complicating the situation, much of the content coming into vehicle interiors was designed for use in front of a desktop or on a hand-held smartphone.

“The context of a vehicle is much different,” Tschihart says, citing navigation maps that traditionally call for long glances from its user. For use in a car, “allow drivers to chunk information, not look at it for long periods. Divide it up into chunks.”

However, “patching up” existing systems ultimately will not work, Tschirhart says. Designers must provide a bulletproof interface from the outset. “Design things to enhance the perceptual ability of the driver.”

As such, device maker Nokia Corp. has partnered with Valmet Automotive Inc. and auto maker Fiat Auto SpA to deploy a connectivity system called “Terminal Mode.”

As the name suggests, Terminal Mode marries hand-held devices such as smartphones with existing vehicle components through Bluetooth and USB connections.

Nokia deployed an advanced version of the system on a Valmet concept car at the 2010 Geneva auto show, as well as simpler variant on a Fiat 500 at the same event.

The system presents mobile device applications on existing display screens and allows them to be controlled by the vehicle’s human machine interface.

Vesa Luiro, director-Nokia Automotive, says the system extends the capability of the car’s infotainment system and enhances the usability of mobile devices safely and simply.

“It’s really nicely done,” Luiro tells the panel. “What we have here is a high value proposition for consumers.”

Nokia currently makes specifications for Terminal Mode available to both auto and device makers, although it plans to work with core partners before opening it up to the entire industry.

Tom Schalk, vice president-Voice Technology at ATX Corp., says fast-advancing speech recognition technology will provide one solution.

Systems considered “cumbersome” a decade ago have evolved to more user-friendly technologies, capable of browsing the Internet and texting via voice commands, as well as receiving advanced destination entries to navigation systems.

jamend@wardsauto.com