The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

System Works for Busy Drivers, Calling Home or Pulling Up Directions.

November 2, 2004

Automotive electronics supplier Siemens VDO said it has designed a novel solution for keeping drivers' attention on the road, rather than on their cell phones, Palm Pilots, and navigation systems, according to the Detroit News. Siemens' soon-to-be-released EasyControl system will perform any number of tasks, from dialing a friend to pulling up driving directions, but only when the driver gives it a handwritten command. Trace the letter "H" on the little pad near the gearshift and the system could, for example, cue your cell phone to call home. EasyControl is one answer to dealing with the growing problem of driver distraction related to cell phones and other electronics, which research suggests is becoming a bigger factor in traffic accidents. Products like EasyControl are largely seen as bridge technologies that answer consumers' and automakers' needs until engineers master voice-recognition systems, which respond only to voice commands. Today, voice-recognition systems remain expensive to install and nonresponsive to natural speech patterns. But Nhu Nguyen-Thien, who heads the EasyControl program at Siemens' headquarters in Regensburg, Germany, believes his device could have staying power even after voice-recognition systems go mainstream. “Both of them have their advantages and drawbacks,” he said. “The question is not which is better. The question is how and in what cars they make sense.” Relatively inexpensive to install with simple components, touchpad devices are better suited to mid-priced vehicles, while high-end vehicles may be better suited for voice-recognition systems, he said. Yet convincing automakers that fingering a touchpad is a safer alternative to turning knobs and pressing buttons may be a tough sell. Siemens is in talks with a major German automaker to include EasyControl on a production vehicle by 2007 or 2008, and other automakers also have expressed interest, Thien said. With some U.S. states and many countries beginning to limit cell phone usage behind the wheel, suppliers and automakers are rushing to come up with technologies that permit drivers make calls more safely. Automakers have recently started offering hands-free cell phone systems in many models, but mounting research suggests that those devices do not go far enough in reducing driver distraction. That means auto companies likely will keep working on better systems because satisfying their gabbing customers is a must. More than 16 million cell phones are in use in the United States today, and more than 73 percent of American drivers say they make calls while driving, according to research provided by DaimlerChrysler AG, which is working on a voice-recognition system. Some experts are calling for the development of so-called workload managers that would employ cameras or sensors to determine when a driver is overloaded with stimuli. Such a system could block an incoming cell phone call, for instance, or mute the radio when a driver is at a busy intersection and needs to focus on the road. Placing limits on driver freedom is something that automakers are reluctant to do, even in the name of safety. They have shown more interest in active safety technologies, such as electronic stability control, which compensates for drivers who oversteer, or lane departure warning systems that cue drivers when they inadvertently drift out of the lane. These applications are expected to grow in coming years because they add safety to the driving experience, but are inobtrusive. If automakers and legislators are serious about reducing the number of traffic accidents stemming from driver distraction, they may have to go further. Drivers have a responsibility, too, said Tim Syfert, an engineer who studies driver-vehicle interaction for auto parts supplier Johnson Controls Inc. “Driving focus should be the number one task anyone has when they get behind the wheel,” he said.
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