DETROIT – Much of the auto industry’s ongoing driver-distraction discussion may be stuck in the research stage, if a recent panel on the subject at Convergence 2004 is any indication.

Representatives from the Department of Transportation, Denso Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Motorola Inc. convened here to talk about the timely topic, with much of the panel focusing on the need for more research and organization of the facts before action is taken on either the regulation or industry governance front.

“We lack so much information for quantifying distraction,” says Joseph Kanianthra, National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. associate administrator-vehicle safety research. “We have to quantify distraction potential before we can take the right steps.” NHTSA is considering how best to analyze a number of possible detractors, he says.

Panelists agree many in-vehicle components and human tendencies pose a potential for distraction, including navigation systems, cell phones, radios, DVD players, in-vehicle e-mail access via handheld devices, eating, drinking, reading and even taming fussy children in the backseat.

Denso’s head-up arrows could cut distraction.

Although some of the distractions have been addressed by NHTSA and auto makers, or simply are too hard to regulate, a study available from the University of Michigan’s transportation department suggests further research needs to be done concerning head-up displays, voice-activated devices, “haptic” or tactile cues and driver-assistance systems.

Mike Gardner, Motorola director-intelligent systems, says one of the burdens on the research community – which involves auto makers, suppliers, consumer electronics producers, federally funded think tanks and academia – is to simplify the “metrics” for further study.

Gardner says there are “about a dozen different approaches and variations thereof” when it comes to driver-distraction studies, and the information needs to be codified, matured and stabilized, instead of just amassed, if it is to be useful.

With Motorola estimating one-fourth to one-third of traffic accidents at least partially attributable to driver distraction, Gardner says a solution, while necessary, needs to be right.

“We should not be researching ad nauseam for metrics,” Kanianthra says, agreeing with Gardner’s emphasis on pursuing usable distraction research. He says NHTSA has a “special burden” to ensure its recommendations are credible because it is a public institution.

In addition to making the information robust, Denso Corp.’s Mitsuhiko Masegi, managing officer-safety, says technology must advance as well, in order to improve the user-friendliness of such devices as navigation systems and interfaces such as BMW AG’s iDrive, rather than simply regulate them out of existence or nullify their usefulness.

During the panel discussion, five speakers identified organizations conducting research either independently or jointly that NHTSA could pool from, including Ford, Denso, Motorola, Delphi Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co. Ltd., General Motors Corp., the University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, University of Iowa and the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Assn.

Even though not much is concrete in terms of universal laws or industry standards, the countless hours and millions of dollars in research is bearing tangible fruit.

For example Denso International America Inc. President and CEO Matt Matsushita says the supplier is working on windshield-mounted navigation devices that could stem distraction issues, while Ford will install lane-departure warning devices and other potential lifesavers in future vehicles. (See related story: Maps: Coming To A Windshield Near You)

Ford has tested the systems extensively with in-house simulation, taking into account real-world circumstances, says Jeff Greenberg, Ford’s staff technical specialist-Vehicle Design Research.

He says the research must continue, even as solutions come to market.

“We can always do more, but there’s a tremendous amount of work that’s happening at the OEMs and sponsored by the DOT (and) at a variety of universities in this country and abroad to try to look at these issues,” Greenberg says. “I think that is extremely important because we would like to understand the psychology of driving in ways that we have not.”

Ford has taken steps to pull driver distraction out of its research department and implement findings in actual product development.

It is partially relying on principles laid out by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers’ Telematics Working Group, which currently is in the second stage of deployment and intended to guide auto makers’ driver distraction-oriented considerations when laying out various systems and interfaces.

“These guidelines have been developed in order to give clear sound guidance for vehicle manufacturers on the engineering design parameters and evaluation techniques that need to be applied to new in-vehicle electronic devices,” he says. “Manufacturers have voluntarily committed to comply with those guidelines, and they are dynamic.”

Most importantly, the guidelines “have teeth,” Greenberg says.

“The guidelines themselves are not a broad, general statement. They are very specific. They are detailed, elaborated, procedural; they’re quantitative and they’re operational.”

Ford has chosen to nix features if they fail to meet the guidelines, he says.