Safety board attacks drivers' cellphone use; automakers may have to redesign in-car systems
U.S. safety investigators last week issued their strongest recommendation yet on how to curtail distracted driving: ban all use of mobile devices behind the wheel, including those that offer hands-free calling or texting.
The National Transportation Safety Board is asking all 50 states to implement the ban, which is far tougher than restrictions put in place in many states that prohibit handheld phone calls or texting while driving.
If the NTSB gets its way, technologies such as Ford Motor Co.'s heavily marketed Sync, which promotes hands-free calling, are at risk because they are built around drivers connecting their smartphones to the car.
In-car systems such as those offered by Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Chrysler and Toyota also would be affected if states were to adopt the agency's recommendations since the systems offer similar mobile phone-based features.
The five-member board also is calling on the telecommunications industry to develop technology that disables a driver's phone while the car is moving.
For now the NTSB's idea seems little more than political advocacy since the agency's recommendations don't carry any regulatory weight.
But the call for a nationwide ban is taking the debate about in-car cellphone use in a new direction and is calling into question whether the hands-free solution many automakers have proposed to combat driver distraction is indeed safe.
The NTSB's plea also could lead to legislative action by Congress or regulatory action by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which also has made distracted driving a priority.
For now, many automakers use the smartphone as a bridge that gives drivers access to Web pages, navigation maps and other features from the instrument panel or by speaking aloud.
"There are billions of dollars of smartphone development activity that would be thrown out the window," said Roger Lanctot, a technology analyst with Strategy Analytics.
"You'd have a lot of dark screens in cars," he added.
As envisioned by the NTSB a ban would allow exemptions for built-in mobile devices, such as General Motors' OnStar, and navigation systems that "aid the driving task."
But any in-car technology with Bluetooth connectivity, which allows drivers to place and receive calls without having to touch their phones, wouldn't be allowed.
"The safety board has investigated a lot of accidents," said Deborah Hersman, NTSB chairman. "And we know, many times the distraction that is there is not just about the manipulation of something or a visual distraction.
"It's about a cognitive distraction," she said. "It's about not being engaged in the task at hand."
A ban on hands-free technology, which is becoming ever more popular in models on the road today, could be costly for manufacturers.
It would mean that automakers would have to update software on hundreds of thousands of vehicles, either at the dealership or by giving owners a thumb drive, Lanctot said. The effort could cost the auto industry tens of millions of dollars, he said.
But the chances of that happening are slim at this point, he said.
The NTSB's "recommendations are often used as a driver to influence policy," Lanctot said. "But they don't have the ability to make it happen."
Many automakers already back bans on using handheld cellphones or texting while driving. But hands-free calling is being held up by the industry as one solution for making the use of such devices safer.
In response to the NTSB's recommendations, Ford said external research shows that hands-free, voice-activated technology such as that used on Sync, "significantly reduces that risk by allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it is reviewing the NTSB's recommendations, but overall the group supports the industry's efforts to develop technology that strikes a balance by allowing drivers to use their phones in the car -- an inevitability given their ubiquity -- but in a way that's safe and keeps the driver focused on the road.
NTSB officials acknowledged last week that their recommendations won't be popular, but it views its campaign as a watershed moment, putting it on a par with other sweeping safety initiatives such as seat belt and drunken-driving laws.
The board isn't calling on the auto industry to alter any of its existing in-car technology, although the NTSB's Hersman said it is an "issue that's very interesting to the board."
Rather, the NTSB is asking the telecom industry to come up with a technological solution by offering software that disables cellphones and other portable electronics within reach of the driver while the car is on the road.
The technology, which Hersman said is already available to cellphone users as a downloadable app, would identify the driver and not interfere with other passengers' phones.
NHTSA also has taken aim at distracted driving and, in particular, the use of handheld cellphones behind the wheel.
Its efforts, led by Ray LaHood, the U.S. secretary of transportation and an outspoken critic of distracting in-car features, have resulted in 35 states and the District of Columbia passing laws to ban texting or handheld cellphone use while driving.
As of now, no state has banned hands-free mobile phone use on the road.
Still, distracted driving remains a safety concern among regulators. On Dec. 8, the Department of Transportation reported that traffic deaths related to driver distraction accounted for an estimated 3,092 fatalities in 2010.
NHTSA is working on a study to determine the hazards of in-vehicle phone use and is looking at both handheld and hands-free devices. The agency plans to release its analysis late next year.
Separately, it plans to release a series of voluntary guidelines for automakers to follow when developing in-car technologies. The agency, however, isn't pushing for regulations.
For now, the NTSB is putting the onus on state governments to enact and enforce rules to prohibit the use of cellphones and other portable electronics in cars. The federal government, too, can put pressure on states to take up certain safety measures by tying them to highway-safety funding, an approach also used to expand the adoption of seat belt and drunken-driving laws.
At the same time, automakers are spending big to load up cars with all the latest electronic bells and whistles in an effort to outmarket their competitors. Features such as Bluetooth connectivity and voice-activated calling are heavily promoted in brand advertising.
It's a technological arms race that the NTSB recognizes.
"We know there are many distractions out there," Hersman said. "They are only going to grow and become more complex as we enter an environment where every year new devices are being released."