For example, a driver using a touch screen that consolidates controls in a single location would be more focused on the road than one who has to grope for radio knobs or air-conditioning levers, the industry contends.
That is the argument behind a request from car companies to federal regulators. The automakers are asking that 30-year-old federal rules governing the design of controls and displays be revised so the industry can take greater advantage of electronics advances.
"Electronic vehicles are very much on the horizon, but regulations are grounded in the mechanical world," said Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Visibility keyAutomakers want to make the case that more electronics in the cockpit - while generally viewed by safety groups and regulators as a potential distraction - can serve instead to increase safety.
The alliance, representing 13 car companies, filed a petition for a rule change on Monday, Nov. 19, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency has four months to respond. If the answer is yes, changing the rule would take another year or more.
The existing rule, in short, requires automakers to place a label or symbol identifying a control "on or adjacent to the control." Automakers suggest the rule should say that the identification of a control be visible to a seated and restrained driver.
Reaction to the proposal from safety advocacy groups was not immediately available.
The alliance acknowledged NHTSA has been flexible in its interpretation of the 30-year-old rule, and automakers have been able to put some electronic images on small screens near switches or buttons for climate controls or other systems.
But Wilber said all alliance members think the rule will prevent them from making instrument panel changes in the near future. Some already may be pushing the limits of what is permitted.
A future glimpseFor instance, BMW's new 7 series has a cockpit environment the company calls iDrive. It includes a single knob called the Controller that an occupant can use to change CDs, alter ventilation or perform other functions. The status of each is displayed on a single screen.
James Patterson, a safety engineer for BMW of North America, said iDrive is well within the limits of the rules, but a change still is needed because "we are trying to get ahead of the game."
That is, automakers don't want to go through costly product development and then have to wait for NHTSA interpretations to make sure their technologies are permitted.
Earlier, BMW waited 11 months to learn that its new joystick-style transmission shifter would be considered compliant with rules requiring a traditional Park-Reverse-Neutral-Drive-Low shift pattern.
The electronic shifter also is part of iDrive.
BMW spokesman Dave Buchko called iDrive an effort to "rationalize the ever-increasing number of functions that one has at one's disposal inside a car." He said, "More buttons only serve to make all of that more complicated."