TROY, MI – The No.1 enemy in the fight against driver distraction could be its savior.

That’s how Delphi Corp. views it, as the automotive supplier builds its next-generation infotainment strategy firmly around cellular smartphone technology.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has declared war on driver distraction, with much of the focus on weaning Americans off texting and other cell-phone use while behind the wheel.

But in showing off a concept for a vehicle cockpit of the very near future, Delphi demonstrates to a small group of media at its headquarters here the latest-generation smartphones could provide the answer the DOT and others are seeking.

Some auto makers and suppliers are clinging to traditional infotainment technologies, such as in-dash navigation and audio systems, but not Delphi.

And if the supplier’s path ultimately proves the correct one, it could spell the end to a number of automotive components over the long haul, including standard and satellite radio units, key fobs, mirrors, switches and gauges.

Delphi says it is ready to cede some technology territory to cell-phone developers because the market trend appears undeniable.

Already, 40% of cell-phone sales in North America are smartphones, Robert W. Schumacher, general director-advance product and business development says, citing independent data. That will rise to 60% by 2012.

China will surpass the U.S. as the largest smartphone market this year, and use of the devices is growing at compound annual rates above 30% in such countries as Brazil, India, Nigeria and Turkey, he says.

In the U.S., 51% of vehicle owners have smartphones, with 30% already using their devices while driving and another 30% looking to do so, Schumacher adds.

Research indicates by 2013 every new vehicle sold in the U.S. will have smartphone connectivity, and by 2016 a vehicle’s smartphone interface will be a purchase driver for new-car buyers, the Delphi executive says.

“It will be, ‘How well will my smartphone connect to my car?’” he predicts.

In addition, smartphones are becoming extremely versatile, Schumacher notes. So why not take advantage of all that computing power?

“The mobile computing industry will pass the desktop computer industry very soon,” he predicts.

Delphi’s concept, alluded to at a presentation at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference in May, is fairly simple: Link the vehicle systems with the smartphone via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and replicate the phone’s control panel on the center-stack liquid-crystal display screen.

Drivers would be able to operate cell-phone applications, such as Google navigation, Pandora Internet radio, email retrieval or other Internet-based function, as well as listen to stored music and send text messages through the onboard LCD screen.

To prevent all this from taking the driver’s eyes off the road, the flat-panel display turns from full color to black and white and only certain phone functions are available once the vehicle is shifted out of park. This puts the driver-distraction potential on par with current radio controls and marks an improvement from present-day navigation systems, Schumacher claims.

The Delphi concept works with 3G or coming 4G wireless technology and several smartphone operating systems, including Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android software. All onboard systems will be designed with open architectures, using the Linux operating system, making it easy for third-party developers to offer compatible apps.

In the Delphi cockpit, fitted inside a GMC Acadia, there is no conventional radio head. Instead, a small transmitter that can relay both broadcast and satellite signals is combined with the vehicle’s antenna, sending information to the computer-based display unit. Only a software change is needed to make the same transmitter work in various regions of the world.

There is no CD or DVD player onboard, and Schumacher predicts the last of the factory-installed units will appear in 2015-2016. He also says the radio transmitter ultimately could be eliminated, as well, replaced entirely by smartphone-provided Internet-based radio.

Traditional gauges such as the speedometer and tachometer are replaced by a computer-based, color-adjustable screen that can display information to the driver on an as-needed basis. It is combined with a head-up display to keep the driver’s eyes focused on the road.

Steering-wheel controls allow the driver to toggle through display settings for the HUD and dash-mounted screen.

Cameras replace mirrors, with expanded side-views displayed on monitors planted inside the cabin near the vehicle’s A-pillar, providing an added fuel-efficiency benefit by reducing a vehicle’s drag coefficient 6%, Delphi officials say.

The smartphone could replace today’s key fob. An app Delphi developed not only unlocks the doors, it can be used to control the windows, keep an eye on the car using its onboard cameras, tell the driver where the vehicle is parked or automatically adjust seat and steering-wheel positions to personalized settings.

A camera trained on the driver’s eyes would determine the amount of information or applications to be made available while the vehicle is in motion. If the driver appears too distracted, the system would shut down access to certain features until attention is returned to the road.

Tied into dynamic safety systems and electronically scanning radar, the vehicle could activate automatic braking sooner or steer a vehicle back into its lane if it determines the driver’s distraction level is likely to slow reaction times.

Schumacher says elements of the integrated-smartphone approach will be offered as an upscale option in a ʼ13-model vehicle in the U.S. and that by ’16 will start to appear in mass-market models.

Delphi has production contracts, he says, declining to reveal specific customers. But he does say he expects Ford Motor Co., which has led the way with its Sync operating system, to be among the first with smartphone integration.

Cost will be more than today’s simple Bluetooth connectivity, but it will be “significantly lower” than an onboard navigation system, Schumacher says.

Not all cell-phone apps will be made available in the vehicle, he notes. Fear of viruses or incompatibility that could corrupt onboard systems will mean only approved software will be allowed.

Schumacher says Delphi is willing and eager to act as an industry gatekeeper that would certify apps for in-vehicle use.

The business model for all this remains unclear. As auto makers and suppliers lose income associated with navigation- and audio-system hardware, they may try to sell car buyers brand-specific software app by app, offer unlimited apps for monthly subscription fees or provide free advertiser-supported software, Schumacher says.

“It’s absolutely not clear. We’re having those discussions internally now,” he says, adding that Delphi is interested in becoming an app provider.

Not all auto makers or suppliers are as ready to concede the smartphone era is about to begin, Schumacher says. “But all are at least debating it.”

At Delphi, there’s little question.

“This is going to happen,” says CEO Rodney O’Neal. “The key is to make it happen safely.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com