Automakers rethink cockpits to help save lives

Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.Bruce Gain is an Automotive News Europe correspondent in France.
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Automakers are rethinking the way they design car cockpits to reduce cognitive overload as more sophisticated infotainment systems risk increasing driver distraction, a problem that has been linked to an increasing number of fatal accidents.

To allow people to use their smartphones and other electronic devices in their cars without putting lives in danger, automakers are offering more hands-free applications and simplifying dashboard designs, according to a report from IHS Automotive.

The consultancy says that about 80 percent of all new cars sold in Europe and North America in 2012 offered some sort of voice-activated controls, adding that advanced voice apps for smartphones have begun to move from the prototype stage to the car. Other improvements include applications that allow drivers and passengers to listen to and dictate text messages and e-mails with voice-only commands, a feature already available in models such as the BMW 1 series.

The improvements come at a key time. According to a study released last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of drivers age 18 to 64 in Portugal and the United States reported they had read or sent text or e-mail messages while operating a car in the last 30 days. In Spain, it was 15 percent of drivers.

IHS Automotive says automakers also are opting for more so-called "instrument clusters" on dashboards to reduce driver distraction. The clusters are designed to make it easier to use infotainment and other functions such as air and temperature controls. Automotive supplier Visteon, for example, has developed consoles that combine LCD screens and 3-D graphics. The aim is to make sure displays are clear and understandable even after a quick glance.

In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, compared with 3,267 in 2010, U.S. government data showed. That means even more needs to be done to make sure drivers' eyes and focus remain on the road.

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