Carmakers Tout Audio Facebook as Agencies Seek Texting Curb

Mercedes-Benz F125
Attendees look over the new Mercedes-Benz F125 concept car at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jan. 10, 2012. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

As Toyota Motor Corp. promotes new in-car technology letting drivers make restaurant reservations on and use Bing to search the Internet, regulators are still seeking to discourage mobile-phone use.

Audible Facebook updates and steering-wheel controls that let drivers buy movie tickets and check stock prices went on display at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week. Daimler AG is developing technology to let customers summon road information on the windshield with a wave of the hand.

“People are pretty determined to be connected in their vehicles as they are everywhere else,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of auto researcher “You can regulate all you want. I’m not sure for a lot of consumers, it’s going to make a lot of difference.”

National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told analysts about how his 15-year-old triplet godchildren text each other while sitting at the table. Reconciling the “growing consumer class of young people that don’t have a notion of not being connected” with manufacturers’ efforts to capture the new market and with safety rules is “incredibly difficult,” he said this week in Detroit.

Strickland’s agency is working to release guidelines this year for incorporating in-vehicle technologies.

Driver Deaths

In 2010, 3,092 deaths, or 9.4 percent of road fatalities, were related to driver distraction, NHTSA said in December.

This year, 5.8 million smartphone and embedded connectivity units will be fitted to new cars and light trucks in North America, according to QUBE, part of automotive data provider That’s a 29 percent increase from 2011, when 4.5 million new vehicles had such technology, QUBE said. By 2026, all vehicles sold in North America and Japan will have the technology, the Bromsgrove, England-based company forecasts.

“They’re all looking to personalize the services you receive in the vehicle,” Vanessa Scholfield, a telematics and connected vehicle technology analyst for QUBE, said in a phone interview.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which can’t make rules or enforce them, last month recommended all 50 states ban both handheld and handsfree phone use by drivers after finishing a probe into a Missouri chain-reaction crash caused by a 19-year-old driver who sent or received 11 text messages in the 13 minutes before impact. The recommendation applies to mobile devices, not built-in systems.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose agency has pushed states to ban texting and handheld phone use while driving, in 2010 called for more research on “other distractions” including Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calls and in-car communications systems.

Slow Regulation

The so-called infotainment systems that are becoming more prevalent in vehicles require more research, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said. The agency plans to hold a forum this year to look at driver distractions, she said.

“The challenge for regulators is that they’re never going to be able to keep up and pass standards that address the next big thing in terms of technology,” Hersman said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Regulation is slow.”

Hersman said she rode in Google’s autonomous vehicle last year and that cars that control themselves may be the way to allow drivers to safely text and surf the Web.

Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, featured the new Entune system that links with users’ smart phones at the Detroit auto show. The company is offering the technology, which is debuting in the Camry and the hybrid Prius, free to users for the first three years.

‘Curate the Environment’

“We realize that separating the driver from their mobile device is virtually impossible now,” Jon Bucci, Toyota vice president for advanced technology development, said in an interview in Detroit. “What we’re trying to do is curate the environment.”

Toyota limits the applications it includes on Entune and Facebook isn’t included, Bucci said. “You can’t play Farmville or share photos of friends,” he said.

To mitigate driver distraction, the touch screen becomes inaccessible once the car starts moving, said Carly Schaffner, a Toyota spokeswoman. The driver can then use the alternate controls from the steering wheel or using the voice recognition system, she said.

‘Slippery Slope’

Restricting what drivers should and shouldn’t do behind the wheel is “a slippery slope,” said Christopher King, a Stifel Nicolaus & Co. telecommunications analyst in Baltimore. “It’s difficult to argue that anyone should be using Facebook while driving a car. But at some level, glancing down at a dashboard is part of driving whether it’s checking speed or air conditioning or the radio.”

Daimler is developing gesture-recognition technology to let drivers access information from the Web using their hands, Chairman Dieter Zetsche said at the consumer-electronics show. Mercedes’s latest in-car communications system, called mbrace2, gives drivers access to applications including Facebook, Yelp! and stock prices, he said.

Ford Motor Co.’s announcements on in-car technology focused on voice recognition, which the company said will help drivers keep their hands safely on the wheel. A new service called Sync AppLink is a way for drivers to call up music and news using their voice and smartphone.

Voice Recognition

The automaker will probably stick to voice recognition, rather than going into gesture recognition or touch pads, Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s chief technical officer, said in an interview at the electronics show.

The carmaker, based in Dearborn, Michigan, has held discussions with Facebook on how the social network could be used in the car, according to Mascarenas. While Ford is looking at ways your Facebook friends could help make recommendations on where to go or what music to listen to, it would be too distracting to offer the website’s full features, he said.

“Do you want to be browsing your friends’ latest photos, writing on their wall and stuff?” Mascarenas asked. “I think that’s where you draw the line.”

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