Smart Devices Are the Cause of Distracted Driving -- But They're Also the Solution

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This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

As cars and trucks get smarter, auto manufacturers are struggling to find a balance between passenger safety and the increasing consumer demand for entertainment and communication.

Every day, about 9 people are killed and more than 1,153 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the CDC. And the NTSB has listed distracted driving – everything from cell phones to in-dash systems and other hands-free devices – on its 2014 “Most Wanted” list, which identifies the year’s biggest transportation challenges.

Texting while driving is generally considered the most dangerous – but the growing functionality of entertainment systems in vehicles is raising concerns as well. While manufacturers of these systems have put a heavy emphasis on the use of voice interaction, shortcomings in the technology can still result in drivers taking their eyes off the road and focusing them on the fun stuff in the dashboard.

That, in part, is what led to Ford’s recent update of its Sync in-vehicle communications and entertainment system.

“We’ve always had an emphasis on voice – and we see people want to use it, but it’s not very snappy or fast,” says Liz Halash, product development engineer for Ford’s Sync system. “We try to make things easy to use and intuitive.”

Sync 3 incorporates more conversational voice commands – much like today’s smartphones. Users, for instance, can say “Find me a cup of coffee” and the system will navigate them to the nearest barista.

Still, Sync 3 doesn’t completely address the distracted driver issue. While the system will link to a driver’s phone and read a text message aloud, drivers can also read the message on the console – and they’re also able to scroll through their contacts list on a screen as they drive.

Hyundai, meanwhile, is showing off video concept footage at CES of ideas that could prevent distracted driving accidents in future car models. The company’s proposed Highway Drive Assist System automatically keeps cars in the correct lane and maintains an appropriate distance between vehicles, while the Autonomous Emergency Stop System will sense if the driver is debilitated and then maneuver the car to the shoulder of the road to stop.

The company did not provide a time frame for implementing either program, though.

Over at the Intel booth, SeeingMachines is demonstrating a different sort of prototype to address the issue – a face-tracking camera that knows when a driver has taken his or her attentions off of the road.

Buzz Dean, senior vice president of engineering, says if the driver glances away to, say, read a text just as another vehicle pulls in front of him or her, the system will issue an alert – ranging from a message, audio signal or haptic feedback, such as shaking the brake pedal if you’re too close to a car or vibrating your seat if the system feels you’re getting drowsy.

“It’s raising awareness and helping drivers understand what’s going on while they’re distracted” he says. “It’s a marriage of tech within the car and what we add with vision systems.”

SeeingMachines has struck partnership deals with several manufacturers, says Dean, but they have not yet been publicly revealed. He expects the technology to be in cars within three years.

That may not be enough for some government officials, though.

“While laws and regulations already prohibit [personal electronic device] usage in some operations, such as during commercial flight operations and by on-duty rail operations personnel, these laws and regulations need to be expanded to … all motor vehicle drivers,” the NTSB said in a statement. “Such laws and regulations set a tone for what will and will not be tolerated when operating … vehicles.”

Automakers acknowledge the problem, but say given how widespread the use of phones and other entertainment devices has become, it’s unrealistic to expect people to not use them on the road.

“Automakers have been working to mitigate distraction in vehicles since we developed the first set of distraction guidelines in 2003 – years before this issue entered the broader public debate and a full decade before NHTSA published its guidelines for vehicles,” said the Alliance of Automotive Makers, an automotive trade group made up of 12 car and light truck manufacturers including BMW, Chrysler, Ford, GM and Toyota. “But today’s consumers insist on connectivity at all times and, even while driving, routinely use a variety of portable devices.”

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