The new Wild West

Last reviewed: October 2011

In-car Web and social-media services are so new and moving so fast that the industry is operating in a regulatory Wild West. Few regulations exist for the design of in-car control systems, although major trade groups have established voluntary guidelines. Standards created by the AAM and others, for example, stipulate that no individual input performed while driving should take more than 2 seconds and that no complete task should take more than 20. That is one reason some functions are locked out while a car is in motion.

Jim Pisz, corporate manager of North American business strategies at Toyota, says that if a complete process, such as creating a station in Pandora's Internet radio service, takes more than 20 seconds, it will be locked out while the car is in motion. "But as a convenience," he adds, "if just a stock name comes up, and where its current position is, that's a glance and within the prerequisite of our lockout policy."

"Two seconds became this default time period that people used to call a glance," says Paul Green, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. "The problem is that you keep taking these glances, one after the other. And they all add up."

To help automakers gauge the risk of their systems, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is evaluating in-car technology to develop criteria that manufacturers can use to address distraction caused by use of a driver's hands or diversion of the eyes. The agency's initial results are expected to be released for public comment this fall. NHTSA is also conducting an extensive real-world driving study, involving about 1,900 vehicles, to evaluate the safety of phone use and various interface systems, such as voice control and touch screens.

Whether the studies lead to regulations remains to be seen. For now, "I'm going to leave it up to the car manufacturers to figure out how they can be helpful on this," LaHood says. "If safety is their No. 1 priority, which I believe it is, I want them to think about the distraction part of it also."

Strayer says he believes that some regulation is necessary. "People don't have the intuition to be able to know what is safe and what is not. You don't have the self-monitoring to realize you are veering out of your lane and running red lights because you are so distracted."

University of Utah researchers have begun their own investigation of the impact of telematics and voice-recognition systems on driver distraction. And Strayer noted that a 2001 study published in the journal Human Factors found that using a speech-based system increased reaction time by 30 percent. That's better than texting, he says, but it's still about the same level of distraction as talking on a hands-free cell phone.

The concept of the connected car definitely has its appeal. Convenient, smart-phone-like services give you quick access to information that can help you use your time more efficiently, and they even save gas by preventing needless driving. And despite the safety risks, many drivers are not willing to give up their phones and connectivity in the car. So giving them the advantage of a more mobile-friendly interface can reduce the risk.

Still, Consumer Reports believes that any system that requires drivers to take their eyes off the road for too long or engage in unnecessary distraction can be dangerous. Is it really necessary, for instance, to tweet or post to Facebook while driving? We urge the federal government to address the impact of systems that allow drivers to do that and to craft appropriate regulations to control it. We also hope to see more police departments develop and apply a standard system to track distraction and device use in accident reports so that the scope of the problem can be fully understood.

We urge consumers to use electronics sensibly. Do searches, set destinations, and send messages only while the vehicle is parked safely off the road. When you're driving, keep your full attention on the road. The bottom line, Teater says, is "if you are not fully engaged, you are not driving as safely as you can, and you are risking not only your life but the lives of those you share the road with."