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August 10, 2012

News & Features

Automakers rush to add apps, but regulators fear distractions

New York Times News Service

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The Cadillac CUE infotainment system's interface is shown in the car and on an iPad. (General Motors)

There have been the sexy horsepower wars and dull best-in-class fuel-efficiency battles. Now automakers are fighting an undeclared, escalating war over in-dash apps, worrying regulators about even more distracted driving.

Automakers say they are concerned, too, but that hasn't stopped them from connecting smartphones to in-dash systems and putting Internet-based information into so-called connected cars for 2013. While some Web-based apps offer features similar to those already available in traditional car stereo systems (such as the streaming music service Pandora), newer offerings will let drivers order movie tickets, scroll through restaurant reviews and even check Facebook updates.

Mercedes-Benz, in its just-released second-generation Mbrace2 system, offers six apps, including Yelp, Google Local Search and Facebook, which will allow you only to check in. Acura, Honda and Subaru plan to introduce a suite of streaming services using Aha, a division of the telematics company Harman. Facebook will be included, and one of the services Aha will offer is the reading of Facebook posts aloud.

Facebook is also in the new version of the Lexus Enform system, along with six other apps, including movie-ticket ordering, restaurant listings and Yelp.

Carmakers say customers are demanding these features, driven by the popularity of touch-screen smartphones and tablets.

"The majority of auto companies are reactive," Robert Acker, Aha's general manager, says of the apps arms race. "They see some announcement some other automaker made and they want to have the same services in their car."

Government regulators are concerned. In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a 177-page set of proposed guidelines for in-car electronics. The report repeatedly mentions the complexity of dashboard displays and services that include Twitter posting in traffic, checking restaurant recommendations and buying tickets from behind the wheel.

Car manufacturers say the reality is that drivers are already using these features on their phones while driving. The goal, they argue, is to offer fewer distractions with built-in systems that use, for example, voice commands, buttons on the steering column and large touch screens.

"They are using these apps on their smartphones, anyway," says Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electrical and electronics systems. "So how can we enable them in a non-distracting way?"

Some interfaces allow drivers to scroll through a list of items; others don't. Some systems do not allow drivers to use touch screens; others emphasize them.

"We consider the size of text and the number of items per screen" in order to reduce the amount of time a driver may glance away from the road, says Sam Adams, cross-car-line services manager for Mercedes-Benz, which doesn't use touch screens.

Most systems also prevent drivers from using onscreen keyboards to enter addresses while the car is in motion, something automakers point out portable navigation devices and smartphones do not do.

Many of the companies involved in connected car services worry that government regulators will step in to eliminate them. Indeed, the NHTSA, in its February report, recommends that any in-dash operation that requires the driver to look away from the road for more than two seconds be disabled. The agency also suggests banning manual text entry of more than six button or key presses during a single task and the use of more than 30 characters of text on a screen.

But the NHTSA proposals are only recommendations. More important, the technology and services are changing so rapidly that any regulation would probably be obsolete by the time it became enforceable.

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