The commercial for Mercedes-Benz’s new onboard “infotainment” system is simply mesmerizing: You can check Facebook, browse the Internet, or see a 3-D map, all on a screen about as big as an iPad.
Cadillac’s new CUE system is also full of bells and whistles, letting drivers peruse maps, search for restaurants, or access dozens of radio stations, phone numbers, and addresses through a touch-sensitive screen.
Pick your carmaker, and it’s probably touting some form of infotainment. On low-end models, systems can be fairly simple; some configurations, such as Ford’s, rely primarily on spoken commands; others, such as the Mercedes mbrace2 system, come close to mimicking a smartphone.
That’s the point, of course, of all this new onboard technology. By giving drivers options to stay connected through their dashboard, the hope is they’ll stop fiddling with their cellphones while driving.
“Getting the phone out of people’s hands . . . that’s crucial. I think anyone would agree with that,” said David Caldwell, communications manager for Cadillac. “But as for connectivity, it’s just not debatable that that’s important to people.”
It’s been almost three years since Massachusetts banned drivers from texting or using the Internet on their cellphones. This week, two bills calling for Massachusetts to become a “hands-free” cellphone state are set to be reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation. Given how marginally effective the texting ban has been, maybe one of those bills has a chance of moving forward.
But even if such a law were passed, and even if drivers obeyed it, how are safety advocates to contend with this next generation of on-board gear and its potential to distract drivers?
Federal safety guidelines advise against any typing while driving, or any activity that has a driver look-ing away for more than 2 seconds.
“It’s estimated there are about 9 million vehicles on the road with on-board technologies, but within the next several years, that’s estimated to grow to about 62 million,” said Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England. “So more and more people are going to potentially be distracted by these technologies. Millions more.”
To their credit, Cadillac, Mercedes, and other carmakers are building safeguards into their systems that restrict what drivers can do while the vehicle is in motion, as opposed to when it is in park. I got to see the Mercedes system in action during a test drive with a local dealer. As soon as the driver stepped on the gas, the Facebook application closed and the system’s video keyboard became disabled.
“This organization has a long and almost fabled heritage of safety,” said Robert Policano, a product manager for Mercedes-Benz USA. “Safety is always a priority, and it applies just as much to this infotainment system.”
Policano said Mercedes also has worked closely with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to help formulate voluntary safety guidelines for all infotainment systems. The guidelines, issued in April, recommend against allowing any typing while driving, or any activity requiring a driver to look away from the road for more than 2 seconds at a time. They also recommend against displaying text messages,video, Web pages, or social media content.
Caldwell explained how Cadillac’s CUE system, which adheres to those guidelines, is designed to minimize the number of seconds a driver looks away from the road, reducing most functions — such as making a phone call, or bringing up an address, music artist, or a local weather or traffic report — to a single button push.
The driver doesn’t even need to use the CUE screen, Policano said: buttons on the steering wheel or voice commands perform the same functions.
Again, everything is aimed at stopping the driver from touching his cellphone, Policano said.
Safeguards and federal guidelines notwithstanding, it’s startling what some infotainment systems can still do while a motorist is driving.
During my Mercedes test drive, we typed in a restaurant we wanted the navigation system to find, Redbones Barbecue in Somerville. Just as if we were using Google Maps on a computer, a “street view” photograph of the actual facade of the restaurant filled the dashboard screen, and stayed there as we drove. The driver, using a console dial, could even pan left or right to see more of the street.
While driving, we brought up a 40-word Zagat restaurant review that filled the onboard screen; a five-day weather forecast complete with graphics; and a three-dimensional map of downtown Boston that included the John Hancock Tower rising up into a digital skyline.
The Facebook application wouldn’t work when we accelerated, but while my driver had his foot on the brake, as one might do at a red light, we were able to see status updates and photos that had been posted by friends.
Granted, I wasn’t driving, but I certainly stared a lot longer than 2 seconds at a time at each offering.
Cadillac’s CUE system can display a screen of up to 60 favorite functions — while driving. Honda’s onboard system lets drivers peruse potentially dozens of graphical icons for podcasts.
“You have to be thinking about driving if you are to be a good driver,” Maguire said. “If you have to think about what command to speak, or what restaurant you want to make the reservation at, or looking through 30 icons on a screen, your mind is not going to be on driving.”
This month, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study that found even drivers using supposedly safer “hands-free” technologies to speak commands are plenty distracted.
The carmakers I spoke with seemed convinced that consumers will make sure the infotainment systems are here to stay. With more testing and research, such systems can undoubtedly be expected to become safer as time goes on.
But if cellphones have taught us anything, there will be growing pains.
“Minimizing driver distraction is paramount in all these technologies,” Policano said. “If we see a marked increase in accidents . . . we’ll take action.”