Cadillac takes a CUE from LaHood
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has challenged automakers to minimize distracted driving.
At the Detroit auto show in January, a high-profile visitor stopped by Cadillac's display of its latest infotainment system for a demonstration: U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
LaHood has been the most prominent critic of distracted driving, challenging automakers to offer in-vehicle systems that minimize the problem. At one point, he said hands-free phone connections were acceptable; later he said he wanted to see the results of further studies.
For Cadillac executives, LaHood's impromptu visit was like having the teacher glance over your shoulder during an exam.
"I always read Secretary LaHood's remarks with interest," Cadillac marketing boss Don Butler says. "We have to keep our finger on the pulse of the regulatory environment and anticipate where things are headed."
A LaHood spokesman declined to comment on the secretary's impressions of the demonstration.
The way Butler sees it, he and LaHood are on the same page. Butler believes that the Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, which General Motors will introduce with the launch of the XTS large sedan by early June, will be at the forefront of safe connectivity.
"I can't ignore the fact that people want to consume media, interact with devices, take phone calls," Butler says. "So how can I enable that in the safest manner possible?"
Walking a tightrope
It's a tightrope all automakers are walking as they balance customers' growing demands to stay connected behind the wheel with the need to help them do it safely. Automakers are wary of the threat that a regulatory ban on, say, voice-command texting could wipe clean big chunks of their infotainment strategies.
Increasingly, automakers are positioning themselves as part of the solution. They say they're simply saving consumers from the bad choices that they would likely make with their own smartphones and apps by offering connectivity packages to minimize distraction.
"The genie is out of bottle," says Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. "If we don't provide what customers want, they may go to an aftermarket product that won't be as attuned to providing safety needs for customers."
In February, the U.S. Department of Transportation released guidelines on distracted driving that call on automakers to disable built-in technologies that allow drivers to text, surf the Web or update Facebook pages while on the road. They also seek to prevent any technologies that divert a driver's eyes from the road for more than two seconds.
Later this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to finish a study of the risks of mobile electronics in cars, including voice-operated ones.
A delicate balance
CUE marks the industry's latest crack at striking the delicate balance between keeping customers safe and giving them all the connectivity bells and whistles with an easy-to-use interface. The overriding objective during the development of CUE was to tackle the distraction problem head-on, engineers say.
Butler believes CUE should pass any future regulatory test with an uncluttered design that offers drivers' intuitive controls to minimize glance time.
It's the industry's first telematics touch screen that allows drivers to use the sort of flip, spread and drag commands commonly used on most smartphones and tablets. The main menu sports larger than normal icons for navigation, audio and climate functions.
When not in use, those icons fade to reveal a virtually blank screen. The menu is illuminated again when the user's hand approaches. The 8-inch touch screen emits a small pulse when the driver presses a button, which GM says minimizes the need to glance at the screen.
In 2008, when Cadillac engineers began developing CUE, they went on ride-alongs with dozens of people to observe how they use devices and spot potential distractions.
The engineers discovered that users often fumbled with clunky navigation systems, for example, that forced them to enter the state first, then the city, then the address. The solution: CUE users will be able either to type or to speak an address conversationally.
"We heard people ask over and over: 'Why can't it just work like Google or like my smartphone?'" says Matt Highstrom, an engineer who has helped develop CUE. "So we took the best of the technologies that people already are familiar with."
So, what did LaHood think of CUE?
"I think he thought favorably of it," Butler says. "I think."
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.