Nobody any longer questions whether a plethora of new-age electronic features is going to be available to drivers. It isn’t even so much about "when" it’s all going to happen.

No, the billion-dollar (actually, $8 billion by 2005) question surrounding the coming wave of so-called "telematics" devices has migrated to: "how much" of them is too much?

At the Society of Automotive Engineers 2001 World Congress this week, the SAE offers a panel addressing "Driver Focus," to discuss the issue of how the industry will deal with the wide range of coming electronic features that will be available to drivers.

Panel speakers include Delphi Automotive Systems’ Andrew Brown Jr., director of engineering for the world’s largest supplier. Mr. Brown admits there is broad industry concern about how to act as conscientious gatekeepers of emerging telematics technology – how to ensure that the suppliers developing these features do not get so carried away in a features "arms race" that the effect on drivers’ ability to pilot the vehicle is ignored.

Mr. Brown and other panel speakers say the industry generally is working along two paths: first, understanding how these devices (and combinations of devices) actually affect the act of attentive driving. Second, engineers and suppliers are studying how to design telematics features to mitigate their influence on the task of driving.

Mr. Brown says Delphi and other suppliers are working on creating the best designs possible for telematics devices. A high priority is to create better interfaces between the driver and the devices, and suppliers are working to create head-up displays (HUDs), voice recognition systems and text-to-speech software that will first and foremost, says Mr. Brown, allow drivers to "keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel."

Longer-term, the effect of telematics devices, say the "Driver Focus" panel members, will be mitigated by more automated vehicle systems that can keep the vehicle in its own lane, guide it via radar or laser cruise control and handle other driver-oriented tasks. In effect, if the vehicle becomes more automated, less of the driver’s attention will need to be devoted to the task of driving. Like it or not.

In the meantime, there’s a veritable alphabet soup of entities involved in making sure telematics development continues on an ethical path. Panel members say that in addition to SAE, Europe’s ISO and Japan’s JAMA also are studying the problem around the clock. And in the U.S., engineers are cooperating through research and study conducted entities like the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) and the Federal Highway Management Assn. (FHMA). o