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Apple ratchets up auto tech competition, safety debate

Christina Rogers covers VW and regulatory/legislative issues for Automotive News.

WASHINGTON -- Not to be outdone by Microsoft or Google, tech-giant Apple Inc. said Monday it was making its move into the auto industry.

Company execs, speaking at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, said they are working with eight automakers to make Apple’s iPhone-based voice technology, Siri, available behind the wheel.

Apple calls its new vehicle-oriented application Eyes Free. It enables a driver to perform Siri-managed tasks, such as dictating text messages or summoning directions, by connecting an iPhone to the vehicle via a USB cable.

All the driver has to do is push a button on the steering wheel to activate Siri and speak a command or question.

The move is significant for two reasons:

1. It’s a big step for Apple, which until now has largely stayed out of the auto industry while its competitors have forged partnerships. Think Microsoft and Ford Motor Co. with Sync. And more recently, Verizon Wireless, which last week announced it had teamed with global automotive companies BMW, Honda, Hyundai Kia and Toyota to make its 4G connectivity a reality in cars.

2. It gives the industry’s movement toward hands-free technology a major boost, offering automakers an easy way to make the technology available in their vehicles without having to develop the software.

Already, several automakers have signed on, including Honda and General Motors, and the feature will start showing up in new models as early as this year.

But these changes are occurring too fast for regulators to keep up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it’s studying the risks of voice-operated technology and will release its analysis this year. Guidelines for the industry could soon follow, but as of now, agency officials say the data are unclear on what dangers -- if any -- this technology poses while driving.

Meanwhile, that hasn’t stopped Apple from marketing its Eyes Free feature as a solution to driver distraction.

On its Web site, it describes it this way:

“Through the voice command button on your steering wheel, you’ll be able to ask Siri questions without taking your eyes off the road. To minimize distractions even more, your iOS device’s screen won’t light up.”

Then it goes on to list the capabilities: “call people, select and play music, hear and compose text messages, use Maps and get directions, read your notifications, find calendar information, add reminders and more.”

Completing even half those tasks seems like a lot of mental interaction with the machine. And I’ll admit it: So far, my experiences with Siri outside the car have been hit or miss. I have an iPhone 4S. I use Siri occasionally.

Sometimes she understands me, dutifully transcribing my messages and setting reminders; other times I have to repeat words so often I just give up. Talk about distraction.

When asked about Siri’s move into vehicles, NHTSA declined to comment.

But other safety advocates, such as the officials at the National Transportation Safety Board, have made their feelings on voice-operated technologies known.

In December, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman called for a ban on phone use while driving, even with hands-free devices

“We have got to dispel the myth of multitasking,” Hersman said. “We are still learning what the human brain can handle.”

Whether Siri will tax the brain more or make maneuvering this seemingly ever-growing menu of mobile functions easier remains to be seen.

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