Ford recorded the simulator test to illustrate the benefits of its Sync technology, which enables drivers to control music players and phones by voice. In the video, after the driver tries to find the song manually, he uses a voice command to find it hands-free.
Using his voice, he takes his eyes off the road only five seconds.
For automakers, the rule of thumb is if a task takes more than 15 seconds to perform while the car is parked, it should not be allowed in the car, or the function should be disabled while the vehicle is moving.
But automakers' jobs are getting more complicated with the rising popularity of smart phones, loaded with attention-grabbing applications.
Experts say drivers are starting to demand the same experience in vehicles that they can get elsewhere.
"It's become a competitive issue," said Roger Lanctot, senior analyst for the technology research firm Strategy Analytics. "Customers are now coming into dealerships and saying, 'Can I interface my iPhone with the car?' It's a purchasing checkoff item."
For automakers and suppliers, that means either allowing people to fumble with their phones while driving or integrating phone apps into the car's hardware in a way that minimizes danger.
Just as it did with Sync, Ford is getting ahead of the issue by integrating smart-phone apps into the car. Last month the company announced that the 2011 Fiesta would be the first vehicle to offer Ford's AppLink software, which will give drivers hands-free access to popular smart-phone applications.
Automakers and suppliers say voice technology still holds the best promise of keeping distraction at bay.
"Just about every OEM that I talk to or interact with in the industry, regardless of continent, is watching Ford very closely and treating Ford more or less as the benchmark for integrating social networking technology in the car," said Lanctot.
"They've really set off a technology explosion in the automotive market. All the competition is scrambling to come to grips with what they've done."
At the recent SAE World Congress, supplier Delphi Corp. demonstrated software that can take a driver's smart-phone screen, complete with the applications and icons, and replicate it on the vehicle screen.
Functions considered too distracting would be blocked while the car is moving; others would operate using either voice commands or text-to-speech technology. That means a driver could send and receive text messages hands-free.
Bob Schumacher, Delphi's general director of advanced product and business development, said automakers are "extremely interested" in such systems.
"They recognize that nearly all of their customers have smart phones and want to use them in the car," Schumacher said.
But experts caution that automakers have to police what drivers can do in the car and how the applications work with the automakers' own technology.
"The automotive OEMs are carrying a big liability," said Kamyar Moinzadeh, CEO of Airbiquity, a Seattle company whose technology gives drivers wireless access to information and services. "That user experience is very important to them, so the automotive OEMs need to be able to control how that application is integrated into the vehicle.
"As soon as they integrate it and it causes an issue, nobody goes after the handset manufacturer or the application provider. It's always the automotive OEM."
Ford's approach is to choose the kind of smart-phone apps it considers safe, then give outside developers the software tools to adapt the applications to work hands-free.