DETROIT – Auto makers should shoulder most of the burden of curbing the growing problem of U.S. driver distraction. That’s the message from some officials today at the 2010 SAE Convergence’s “Mobility Ecosystem” panel.

“The OEM has the responsibility to make sure we don’t enable dangerous activities,” says Nick Pudar, vice president-planning and business development for OnStar LLC.

However, others, such as Kia Motors America’s Henry Bzeih, believe preventing accidents caused by driver distraction should not be borne solely by the auto industry.

“An element that we’re not really talking about is the (information technology) and infrastructure and the government’s piece of it,” says Bzeih, national manager-KMA’s Connected Car.

“It should be talked about because the infrastructure in the U.S. is far behind in having vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connectivity.”

Bzeih points to reports that Japan is investing $1 billion in infrastructure to enable V2V and V2I communication, and as a result has 40% fewer auto-related deaths annually than the U.S.

“They’ve managed to utilize their infrastructure into reducing fatalities,” Bzeih says. “The OEM has a huge responsibility but…there’s got to be partnerships with governmental agencies to move this connected car forward. To put this responsibility on the OEM and the partners is good, but you’ve got to take it to the next level.”

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2010 Convergence

Bzeih also wants to see the process to obtain a driver’s license in the U.S. become more arduous.

Comments by Pudar and Bzeih allude to the controversial proposal by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to outlaw the use of phones while driving.

If LaHood’s proposal is enacted, most of what auto makers and their suppliers have developed, or are developing, for in-car communication systems would be at risk, Pudar argues.

“Think about the economic impact that will have on people who spends two hours a day fighting traffic in California who can’t do commerce anymore,” he says.

But an answer to the question of how to reduce driver distraction, and at the same time manage the current and coming wave of in-vehicle communication and entertainment technologies, isn’t clear.

Studies done by technology-consultant Gartner Inc. show consumers don’t know how to use a lot of the technology already in their vehicles, including some that would lessen their distraction, says Thilo Koslowski, vice president-Automotive and Vehicle ICT Industry Advisory Service for Gartner.

Gartner research shows most consumers, when given a choice, prefer traditional hard buttons to control functions, compared with the fancier haptic touch-screen controls of the Audi A8, for instance.

Using voice to control audio settings or dial a phone does rate though, Koslowski says, as most car buyers have at least heard about the technology, maybe via their neighbors.

“Most consumers will tell you they’re very concerned about (distracted driving,)” Koslowski says. “Not that they’re concerned about their behavior. It’s all about the other drivers.”

He proposes the auto industry find creative ways to address distraction issues, such as the ability for a car to tweet a message for the driver or receive a tweet and read it out loud. A vehicle also could hold back a message at a time when the driver’s attention to the road is crucial, such as when passing.

Another way to reduce driver distraction is via an autonomous vehicle, he says.

Koslowski points to Google Inc.’s recent announcement of its autonomous car as an example of how the auto industry is missing out on ways to redefine itself and not give the consumer-electronics industry further entrance into the automotive realm.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com