Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Blackberries, smart phones and other hand-held devices have made the Internet portable, but they also create serious hazards on roadways.

Eight states and the province of Ontario already have banned hand-held phones while driving, and 25 states have outlawed texting while driving.

Traffic-safety statistics explain the reason for the regulatory crackdown: 6,000 people died in vehicle accidents last year while using hand-held devices, and 21% of 1.6 million injury accidents involve distracted driving. The problem won’t be getting better soon, experts say.

“This idea that people are going to be separated from their devices is not going to happen,” Chris Preuss, president of General Motors Co.’s OnStar telematics service, says on a panel discussion at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference, held here.

“This will be one of the major social imperatives of the next decade,” he says.

OnStar’s model is to continue offering hands-free technologies that promote safe driving, such as real-time navigation services that take into account traffic patterns, based on the 5.5 million subscribers using OnStar.

Technology can solve the problem of distracted driving, rather than exacerbate it, says fellow panelist Bob Schumacher, general director-advanced product development and business strategy, Delphi Corp.

The Troy, MI, supplier is part of the Genivi consortium of auto makers, suppliers and software providers dedicated to using an automotive grade Linux operating system, enabling portable devices to connect more readily with vehicle computers, Schumacher says. At that point, hands-free operation of devices would be simple.

Delphi is developing “activity platforms” compatible with the Genivi consortium, including an instrument panel concept that connects with an Android smartphone.

With a high-powered computing platform, 32-bit microprocessor, Bluetooth node, WiFi node and software-defined radio, Delphi’s IP concept becomes a mobile office when linked to the Android phone.

“You can use screens to replicate your desktop on your center console,” Schumacher says. “That computing platform also drives the color reconfigurable display.

“And the Android phone has powerful navigation applications. In general, we’ve demonstrated, when you attach an Android phone and use the Google Maps navigation system, you can do far more on that center console display than you can do with a conventional embedded navigation system.”

Schumacher expects the growing number of smart-phone buyers will demand connectivity with vehicles.

“Smart-phone users download on average 10 applications a week, and many of them want to use those applications in the car,” he says. “Of course, they have to be modified appropriately to be minimally distracting and appropriate for the car.”

Beyond connecting to the vehicle for the purpose of route-guidance and entertainment, smart phones also can sync with the vehicle’s body computer to enhance safety and security and offer remote start, diagnostic services and the ability to raise and lower windows.

“You can use a smart phone to give you the location of your vehicle in a large, complicated parking lot,” Schumacher says.

In some ways, automotive is lagging other industries in terms of producing “connected” products.

Mike Marshall, senior director-vehicle consulting research at J.D. Power & Associates, says home appliances such as refrigerators can be connected to energy grids allowing consumers to control them when they are away from home.

“The vehicle is probably one of the last unconnected devices we have in the marketplace today,” Marshall says.

“There is a need, which is dire, to be connected. People want to stay connected,” he says. “Connecting the vehicle to the grid or the Internet or to this electronic consciousness is an inevitability.”

Marshall pays tribute to OnStar for pioneering the telematics segment 15 years ago.

“If it wasn’t for OnStar back in 1995, the acceptance or the desirability of Safe and Sound (roadside assistance) and the concept of being connected would be much different today.”

He also recognizes Ford Motor Co.’s Sync connectivity platform as a tremendous advancement that has “pretty incredible” marketplace awareness in only three years of availability.

Such connectivity makes increasingly popular hand-held navigation devices superior in many ways to conventional embedded systems.

Marshall agrees the safety hurdle is severe and troubling, and that some industry experts suggest motorists be allowed to access the Internet only when their vehicles are in park.

“Don’t kid yourself,” he says. “A lot of people are looking at the Internet while the vehicle’s in drive.”

As vehicles load up with these new multimedia technologies, Marshall says J.D. Power is seeing evidence quality problems are surfacing.

The Initial Quality Study found 15% of problems industrywide were related to multimedia in 2007, and that amount rose to 18% last year.

At Ford, 7.5% of quality problems stemmed from multimedia in 2007, and the number grew to 10.1% in 2008 and 12.5% in 2009, Marshall says.

“As these applications proliferate, these types of problems will be exposed,” he says.

Delphi’s Schumacher urges auto makers and suppliers to follow the lead of the aircraft industry. Forty years ago, passenger-jet cockpits required hundreds of levers and buttons and gauges.

“In a modern aircraft, it’s just a few flat-panel screens, and computers monitor everything and tell the pilot what he needs to know when he needs to know it,’ Schumacher says.

He sees no reason why the auto industry can’t follow the same path.

People are so consumed by their devices, they become oblivious to their surroundings, Preuss says, relating an anecdote about a recent visit to Austin, TX, for the South by Southwest music and arts festival, popular among young people.

“One of the toughest things you face there is people constantly running into you because they are face-down in their devices tweeting and emailing, keeping everybody up to date on what they’re doing,” he says.

Preuss expects there will be a new technology “that’s going to be hip and trendy until somebody runs into the back of a minivan with seven kids. It’s a tragedy, and I think that time is inevitable.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com