Feds, carmakers on collision course over infotainment

NTSB voices safety concerns as cars evolve into mobile theaters

The rise of in-car entertainment may have put U.S. automakers and the federal government on a collision course.

In Detroit (and other car manufacturing hubs around the world), there’s a growing focus on in-vehicle entertainment systems, which are fast becoming more elaborate. The Transportation Dept. and National Transportation Safety Board, however, are raising a red flag about distracted driving.

While cellphones are the leading distraction for drivers today, the evolution of the car from solely a transportation device to a mobile theater (and sometimes an Internet cafe) has officials worried.

“We’ve seen distractions since there have been cars,” said NTSB chair Deborah Hersman. “There has always been a pretty girl on the side of the road that someone would turn to see. But the quantity and the time that people are distracted when they are behind the wheel is rising. And many people are encouraged to see their car as an extension of their home or workplace — and they want to be as connected as they are in the rest of their life when they’re behind the wheel.”

In December, the NTSB recommended a full ban on the use of cellphones and text messaging while driving for both handheld and hands-free devices. The organization said the action was necessary to address the growing problem of distracted drivers. (A study earlier in 2011 by the Governors Highway Safety Assn. found that distracted driving, primarily that involving cellphones, was responsible for 25% of car crashes.)

States will ultimately decide whether to follow that suggestion, but in-car entertainment is already a big business for automakers. IHS iSuppli reports global automotive infotainment revenue in 2011 hit $32.5 billion, up 3.4% from 2010 (which saw a 4.6% jump from the previous year). In 2012, the number is expected to hit $33.5 billion.

The long-term outlook is even better. Roughly half of adults 18-24 use a digital player to listen to music as they drive today, according to Arbitron. And that same population is being weaned on streaming video and universal Internet connectivity. IHS iSuppli predicts annual growth rates for auto infotainment will range from 4.7% to 6.4% over the next four years.

By 2016, the group says, the market will top $41 billion.

“The most important trend within the market continues to be the greater integration of infotainment features into vehicles’ central head units in the dashboard or front console,” said IHS iSuppli’s Luca De Ambroggi. “Such head-unit centralization is creating significant market opportunities.”

Several additional advances are about to hit the road, too. BMW has struck a deal with Yelp, which will bring restaurant reviews and suggestions to drivers. Toyota’s Entune, which supports the MovieTickets.com app, will offer everything from Microsoft’s Bing and restaurant reservation service OpenTable to on demand stock quotes and sports scores. In fact, virtually every major auto company is rolling out (or working on) new infotainment systems for their vehicles — most with touchscreen interfaces and an increasing number with Internet connectivity.

And while no automaker has yet incorporated Netflix or other video streaming services into their entertainment systems, it’s only a matter of time before that technology expands its reach to the road.

The growing number of potential in-vehicle distractions has led the Obama administration to establish new voluntary safety criteria for entertainment systems and hands-free calling. In mid-February, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed guidelines recommending automakers disable electronic systems accessible to the driver when a car is moving. Passenger-only systems would be exempt.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group of 12 car and light truck manufacturers, said its members will consider the proposal but noted that there’s no stopping the technological advancements in cars.

In a statement, the group said: “Digital technology has created a connected culture in America that has forever changed our society. Consumers expect to have access to new technology, so integrating and adapting this technology to enable safe driving is the solution. Drivers are going to have conversations, listen to music and read maps while driving, and automakers are helping them do this more safely with integrated hands-free systems that help drivers focus on the road.”

The NTSB’s Hersman, though, warns that the rapid pace of those technological advances is part of what worries officials.

“We’ve opened up Pandora’s box,” she said. “The last time they updated the guidelines was in 2006 — and the world has changed a great deal as far as electronics in that time. … We’re really concerned … about the cognitive distraction — a distraction where your mind isn’t engaged. A lot of people think hands-free means they’re safe but many studies show there is little difference between hands-free and handheld.”

Many auto execs acknowledge the industry’s focus needs to remain the road. “For us, the key thing is the driving experience,” said Filip Brabec, general manager of product planning for Audi of America. (Daily Variety, Jan. 10). “Because of that, automakers have primarily focused on new audio features due to safe driving concerns.”

While today’s systems worry officials, they’re even more nervous about the future of in-car entertainment.

“Every month, we’re learning about new technology coming into vehicles or available on portable electronic devices,” Hersman said. “I’m not sure if we can envision where we’re going to be five years from now with this technology. … It doesn’t take much to be distracted. And if you make a mistake, it can have a real and tragic outcome for someone else.” tech